Try Tri Again

Feb 22, 2006 at 4:00 am
Arthur Miller might have been writing about himself when, early in his somber Broken Glass, a doctor's wife suggests, "You can't fight a person's nature." What was Miller's nature? Director Elia Kazan, who understood the playwright well, said that he had "a need to teach." So Miller spent more than half a century lecturing his audiences. Along the way he provided some enduring theater, but rarely without also telling playgoers what and how to think. So it is here, in this drama from the autumn of his epic career.

Broken Glass, on view at the New Jewish Theatre, begins in Brooklyn in November 1938. Sylvia Gellburg is so distraught over news photos coming out of Germany, where the persecution of Jews is reaching horrific new levels, that she begins "falling around like a rag doll." In an apparent case of hysterical paralysis, she becomes paralyzed from the waist down. As she screams out, "Where is Roosevelt! Where is England!" one senses that Sylvia is not solely a character; she's also a metaphor for a world that succumbed to paralysis even as Nazi Germany was demeaning humanity.

Sylvia's husband Phillip is another metaphor. Phillip "doesn't like Jews," and he's slow to acknowledge his roots. He takes pride in being the only Jewish employee in a WASP mortgage and loan firm that, if anything, has benefited from the Depression. His wife's illness pains him, but he's also upset by her obsession with the horrors in Germany. Even her personal physician, the handsome Dr. Hyman, cannot understand Sylvia's "fascination" with the Nazis. The good doctor studied in Heidelberg and praises the Germans as "some of the finest people I ever met."

The dynamics are in place for an intriguing triangle. Will Sylvia walk again? Will Phillip own up to his heritage? Will Dr. Hyman take advantage of his charming bedside manner? For the first two-thirds of the play, as mystery compounds upon mystery, and relationships — doctor-patient, husband-wife — shift, Broken Glass is compelling. But then, midway through Act Two, Miller begins to preach and teach.

When Broken Glass was first staged in 1994, Miller was 78. Perhaps he was sensing mortality — it's as if he tried to cram everything he still wanted to impart about fear and shame and pride into one last master class. Some of his insights might have been better left unsaid. A play that builds to a line like, "You draw your cards face down; you turn them over and do your best with the hand you got," is Arthur Miller reduced to the level of Kenny Rogers.

Perhaps a more elevated analogy would be to Pirandello, because Broken Glass is about six actors in search of a three-character play.

But that's only one of the script's excesses. Another is Miller's connect-the-dots writing style. We hear variations on the line, "Do you want to talk about it?" over and over and maddeningly over again. And we waste valuable time learning about whether "David" is going to college. Who is David? He's the offstage son of a peripheral character who shouldn't be in the play to begin with.

One can only assume that when a theater icon writes a play, it gets staged as written. Too bad. Someone should have urged Miller to cut the needless references to "David," and while they were at it they also might have suggested that he drop the scene-bridging incidental cello music. Talk about lugubrious. This score, which was commissioned by Miller especially for Broken Glass, is such a downer the ushers might as well pass out Valium as you enter the auditorium.

Of course, we need to keep things in perspective. It may be easy to pick apart this play, but it's not easy to imagine an American theater without Arthur Miller. Nor is it easy to pick at this production, directed by (Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent. At its best it is stunning. The set by Dunsi Dai imaginatively fills every inch of the small stage. Glenn Dunn's lighting illuminates not only the playing areas but the characters. At one point when Sylvia realizes how isolated she is from the others, the lights turn the stage ice cold — a chilling effect indeed.

Kevin Beyer delivers a consummate performance as Phillip, the buttoned-up man in black. Phillip is so consumed by self-loathing that even a shrug is an effort; the wonder here is that Beyer's work is so eloquent. Lavonne Byers etches a haunting portrait of loneliness; there are times when her eyes are as lifeless as her legs. As Dr. Hyman, Bill Lynch pretty much relies on his natural appeal, which might well be the correct approach, because by evening's end Dr. Hyman's import to the play has curiously diminished.

At the core of Relativity, which is receiving its Midwest premiere by the Black Rep, is another triangle composed of two family members (a mother and daughter rather than a husband and wife) and an outsider. A young African-American genetic researcher must choose between loyalty to her activist mother (who supports a radical theory that blacks are genetically superior to whites) and loyalty to her boss, a prominent scientist who opposes everything the mother stands for.

As in Broken Glass, music is important to the production. A lone drummer not only bridges the scenes but uses an incessant drumbeat to convey the characters' inner thoughts. Unlike the straightforward approach Miller takes, in which one scene follows upon the next, Medley's script is all over the place. There are no prescribed boundaries here. Actors might talk to the audience or, thanks to Regina Garcia's spare set, they might wander in and out of scenes in which they do not physically appear.

But a viewer gets something in a Miller play that's not to be found here: fully drawn characters. In this staging by Ron Himes, Medley's protagonists seem more like mouthpieces than people. There's a disconnect between dialogue and drama. Although we're assaulted by a grab bag of buzz phrases — melanin science, unified race theories, bioethics debates, eugenics movement, genetic coding — how much more informed is the viewer at the end of the play than at the beginning? And how much do you care about those who should be informing us? "In the spirit of enquiry one should listen to all sides of an argument," one character contends. But in the spirit of theater, there's got to be something more than words. It's not a good sign when the evening's most compelling action is pounded out by Arthur Moore on his drum.

Considering how little they've been given to flesh out, the cast is fine enough. Bianca LaVerne Jones registers the proper dismay over her difficult choice between mother and mentor. Although Linda Kennedy and the always persuasive J. Samuel Davis exude a sense of authority as the celebrated mother and her smooth-talking promoter-lover, one never quite believes their commitment to science. There's more of Elmer Gantry and Aimee Semple McPherson about these two than there is of Linus Pauling. Monica Parks is perhaps the most believable of all. As the scientist who asks, "Why does having a contrary opinion mean I'm being negative?" she instills her performance with a cool detachment.

Relativity tosses around a lot of questions (like: "Do you really love science?"). But it's difficult to get past the conviction that in this script "love" is just another buzzword. An equally germane question might be: "Do you really love theater?" Though both of this week's plays are flawed, there's a sense that for Cassandra Medley Relativity was a commission; for Arthur Miller Broken Glass was a passion. His scolding voice, however didactic it might have been, will be missed.