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Broken Glass

This effective film adaptation of Arthur Miller's play is a serious, intimate meditation on themes that have obsessed the playwright throughout a career spanning more than half a century, notably the unforgiving place where private lives and public posturings intersect. "Broken Glass" has considerable timeliness in this election season.

This effective film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play will undoubtedly be seen by more Americans on TV next week than during its entire abbreviated Broadway run in the spring of 1994. A serious, intimate meditation on themes that have obsessed the playwright throughout a career spanning more than half a century notably the unforgiving place where private lives and public posturings intersect “Broken Glass” has considerable timeliness in this election season. It also boasts an appealing, sympathetic performance by Mandy Patinkin as a Brooklyn doctor thrown in the middle of a marital crisis from which no one involved emerges unchanged. Patinkin’s charming, empathic Harry Hyman is called on to treat Sylvia Gellburg (Margot Leicester, in a luminous performance), an otherwise healthy woman struck one evening by paralysis. The year is 1938, and the comfortable home she shares with her husband, Phillip (Henry Goodman), has been invaded by ugly news filtering in from Europe: of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” that signaled the beginning of the Final Solution in Germany; of deportations and pogroms, the denunciation and humiliation of Germany’s Jews. Sylvia cannot sweep such news aside, as the rest of Depression-weary America seems willing to do; saving the dispatches, she’s haunted by a newspaper photograph of two elderly German Jewish men forced by hooligans to scrub a sidewalk with toothbrushes. Then her legs give out, and no one knows why. Phillip is the sole Jewish officer employed in a Brooklyn bank, used primarily by the smug WASP executives for dirty work, foreclosing on local bankrupts. Tight-lipped and arrogant, Phillip is proudly Republican proud that the boss got his son into West Point, heedless of the self-loathing and fear that keep his facial muscles working overtime and that are sending him to an early grave. He and Sylvia haven’t slept together in years. The heart of the play (and the film, which is adapted from the Olivier Award-winning London production) is the relationship that develops between Sylvia and Harry. A horse-lover given to dawn rides on Brighton Beach, Harry is a contemplative Jew married to an effervescent non-Jew (Elizabeth McGovern). He’s drawn powerfully to Sylvia and she to him; the bond is both healing and erotic. In setting the ruinous consequences of a loveless marriage in a world at the edge of a great horror, Miller takes a great risk. The broken glass of the title refers both to Kristallnacht and, ironically , to the Jewish wedding custom of crushing a wine glass to mark the ceremony’s hoped-for irrevocability. The themes don’t easily co-exist, but the work here is more persuasive than it was on Broadway (despite powerful performances from Ron Rifkin and Amy Irving as Sylvia and Harry). Director David Thacker establishes an elegiac tone with long, undisturbed shots and very few histrionics. And in filming the play, production designer Bruce Macadie achieves a sure, late-’30s look, of an America just beginning to emerge from the Depression that Santo Loquasto’s sterile stage design lacked. Thus the story is allowed to build in a way that was thwarted on stage. While the ending still strikes me as maudlin and contrived, “Broken Glass” remains a powerful story, and it’s powerfully told. (The film is followed by an interview with Miller conducted by “Masterpiece Theater” host Russell Baker.)

Broken Glass

Sun. (20), 9-11 p.m., PBS

  • Production: A co-production of WGBH Boston and the BBC filmed in the U.K. for Mobil Masterpiece Theater. Executive producers, Simon Curtis (BBC), Rebecca Eaton (WGBH); producer, Fiona Finlay; screenplay, David Holman and David Thacker, based on Arthur Miller's play; director, David Thacker.
  • Crew: Production designer, Bruce Macadie; director of photography, John Daly; editor, Kate Evans; composer, Adrian Johnston.
  • With: Cast: Mandy Patinkin, Margot Leicester, Henry Goodman, Elizabeth McGovern, Sharon Clarke, Julia Swift, Ed Bishop.
  • Music By: