Arthur Miller famously wrote a great play about American-Jewish assimilation. Unfortunately, where that play, “Death of a Salesman,” treated its subject obliquely with fascinating ambiguity, his 1994 return to the topic “Broken Glass” is thuddingly literal. That’s certainly the impression delivered by Iqbal Khan’s dismayingly heavy-handed West End production.
A married Jewish couple in Brooklyn in 1938 have hit a crisis. Philip Gellburg (Antony Sher) goes to see his old friend Dr. Hyman (nicely swaggering Stanley Townsend) because he’s frightened. His wife Sylvia (Tara Fitzgerald) has suddenly found herself paralysed both metaphorically and literally by the horrors she’s been reading about in Nazi-controlled Germany following Kristallnacht — hence the play’s title.
Hyman, by his own admission, is no psychoanalyst, but his friendship and convenient medical training allow Miller to unravel crucial, covered-up difficulties within the marriage. Both Philip and Sylvia go through bewilderment and denial about themselves, their relationship and their connection to their Judaism until the wholly predictable (melo)dramatic climax at which they achieve sudden complete insight.
Absorbing as these ideas should be, the text reads better than it plays, particularly in so earnest a staging. Although the production received strong reviews in its initial 2010 outing at the Tricycle theater, its almost wholly recast West End transfer has done it few if any favours.
The single holdover from the first outing is Sher in the central role of Philip. Possibly in an attempt to fill a larger West End house, Sher quivers with anguish from the outset with Philip’s blind self-absorption already at virtual breaking-point. Thus the more his fear and self-loathing grows, the harder it becomes to watch. This degree of overt display fatally works against audience connection.
Philip tells Hyman that he’s not able to express himself quickly, a line Sher takes very literally. His painfully slow delivery also highlights his struggle with the accent, a problem bizarrely shared by the entire company. The effect is like hearing a bunch of hardworking singers whose intonation keeps slipping off-key.
Among the new cast, Fitzgerald fares best as Sylvia, not least because she underplays her character’s trauma. But even her work is sandbagged by Khan’s overemphatic direction and leaden pacing of both the scenes and, crucially, the transitions, which following Miller’s directives are accompanied by cello. Grant Olding’s alternately anxious and elegiac music is well-played but every cue makes its point twice, further robbing the already distended evening of momentum.