New Rep Celebrates Arthur Miller’s Centennial with Intriguing ‘Broken Glass’ (4.5 Stars)

‘Broken Glass’ – Written by Arthur Miller, Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Design, Jon Savage; Costume Design, Molly Trainer; Lighting Design, Scott Pinkney; Sound Design, David Remedies. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through September 27.

There’s a great and telling line early on in Arthur Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’, when Philip Gellburg, whose wife is suffering from psychosomatic paralysis from her waist down, asks her physician if she is is crazy. He reassures him that she’s not really “crazy,” but adds that those that are (and I may be paraphrasing) may have it a little easier because “We don’t know that we’re nuts and the other kind does.” And that is precisely what is at the center of this complex and interesting play: how an outwardly successful, seemingly rational (although thoroughly unpleasant) man is so driven by unreasonable fears and insecurity that life is torture for him, and in turn, for those around him.

When we first meet Gellburg in Dr. Harry Hyman’s office, he is clearly in anguish over the condition of his wife, but we learn a good deal about him as well. He is short with the doctor’s wife as he waits to see him, particularly when she inadvertently mispronounces his name. “It’s ‘Gellburg’, not ‘Goldberg’,” he snorts. “It’s the only one in the phonebook.” That’s the first inkling that he may bit a bit of a self-loathing Jew – which may or may not be accurate – but he piles it on later in the scene when he hints to the doctor that the treatment the Jews are receiving in 1938 Germany, immediately following Kristallnacht, might not be totally undeserved. “German Jews can be pretty… you know… (pushes up his nose),” he says.

But Gellburg (in an intense performance by Jeremiah Kissell) defies easy characterization, as he is clearly proud of being the “only Jew in the history of the Brooklyn Guarantee” (where he is the head of the mortgage department), and also “the only Jew ever set foot on that deck” of the yacht of his WASP boss, Stanton Wylie Chase (a perfectly cast Michael Kaye), who won the America’s Cup race two years prior. There is additional evidence of his pride in his Jewish identity throughout, which is what makes his character so perplexing, and ultimately, so “crazy” – in ways we discover as the play unfolds.
What appears to be the source of Gellburg’s wife Sylvia’s (Anne Gottlieb) malady is her obsession with the events going on in Germany, and she is particularly haunted by the photo of elderly Jewish men being forced to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes while onlookers laugh and do nothing to help them. Dr. Hyman (in an assured performance by Benjamin Evett) decides to treat the problem without the aid of a psychiatrist (in part we suspect, because of the mutual attraction between he and Sylvia), and as the layers are peeled back during the “talk therapy” we begin to see what really may be at the root of her hysteria.
This is not playwright Arthur Miller’ s best work, because there are too many elements introduced into the plot that don’t aid the narrative, but given that he’s one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, there’s still an awful lot to like. The dialogue is riveting, and the secrets and shame behind Gellburg and Sylvia’s domestic troubles are plenty interesting, with or without the heightened drama of the rise of the Nazis.

The performances by the talented cast are solid, and as Sylvia, Gottlieb does a nice job conveying the combination of intelligence and working class practicality that the role of the beautiful Sylvia demands. The set design is imaginative, with a rotating outer circle delivering the various settings for each scene, with the Gellburg’s bed (where Sylvia spends much of her time) ever present. Sound designer David Remedios punctuates some of the more critical scenes with the literal sound of breaking glass, and it’s a nice touch.  This is a production well worth seeing. For more information, go to: