Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” Launches New Rep Theatre’s 2015-2016 Season

L-R: Anne Gottlieb and Jeremiah Kissel

All photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

New Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jim Petosa, chose Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced “Broken Glass” to open the 2015-2016 season. “The resounding authenticity of playwright Arthur Miller’s voice has left an indelible legacy on the American stage,” Petosa said. “We are proud to bring this Boston are premiere to our stage during the nationwide celebration of his 100th birthday,”

“Identity” is the theme of this year’s season, and “Broken Glass” certainly fits the bill.

Written in 1994,  Miller wrote this play 40-50 years after he had penned his best known and greatest plays (the American classics “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge”). During these later years, Miller began exploring his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew. His search resounds loud and clear in “Broken Glass.”

The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), one of the events in the run-up to World War II, in which windows in Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The title may also refer to the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings.

Sylvia Gellburg (played with clarity and wit by Anne Gottlieb) is obsessed with the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe and distraught by the fact that those around her can’t see the writing on the wall. She pores over the newspaper, returning again and again to the humiliation of a photo of two elderly bearded Jews forced to scour the sidewalk with toothbrushes. She fears that such brutality will somehow reach Brooklyn.

Her feelings of helplessness so overwhelm her that she suffers the actual physical helplessness of paralysis. “Somebody has to do something, or they will murder us all,” she wails.

Her gloomy, hot-blooded husband, mortgage banker Phillip (played with staccato nervous energy by the stellar and popular Jeremiah Kissel) insists she see their physician and friend, Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). After running a series of tests and referring Sylvia to a specialist, he concludes that Sylvia’s ailment appears to be psychosomatic. He likens her condition to soldiers who are so frightened they suffer shell shock.

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

Unlike Sylvia, Phillip is not at peace with his identity. He spends as much time trying to assimilate and shed his Jewish identity as he does bristling at imagined anti-Semitic remarks, caught in that no man’s land of identifying as a Jew and wanting to be anything else. Nonetheless, he isn’t so sure that Sylvia’s reaction to the horrors of Germany isn’t spot-on.

“What if Sylvia is the only one who is awake and her reaction makes sense and if the rest of us were aware of what she is, we’d be paralyzed too?” he asks Dr. Hyman. The doctor, who is Jewish but married to the bubbly non-Jewish Margaret (Eve Passeltiner), is convinced that all the political turmoil will pass. In his estimation, Sylvia’s problem boils down to the fact that she is desperate to be loved.

Against this backdrop of unhappiness, fear and repression, the Gellburg’s marital disintegration soon takes center stage as Sylvia and Phillip verbally spar with the intimate accuracy of two people well versed in each other’s Achilles’ heels. Sylvia, who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood and Manhattan, resents and regrets ever leaving Brooklyn. “I can’t seem to find myself in my life,” she says. Phillip echoes her disappointment: “I always thought I would have time to get to the bottom of me,” he says. These are two strangers in the strange land of their marriage.

While the cast is superb and the set inventive and effective, the play’s strident tone and length (two-and-a-half hours) eventually wears down even the most ardent theatergoer. “Broken Glass” is a tough slog. Unlike Willy Loman and the characters in Miller’s deservedly more famous plays, these characters are two-dimensional and that two-dimensionality keeps us at arm’s length, sadly making it impossible for us to feel the compassion they so crave.

Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

Jim Petosa: Up Close and Personal

Even over the phone, Jim Petosa’s enthusiasm is contagious. The New Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director since 2012 (he just “re-enlisted” with a second three-year contract) is excited to talk about the New Rep’s upcoming 2015-2016 season and its opening play, Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass”, which Petosa will direct.

“I’m really happy,” he said, adding, “It’s been great. I’m beginning my fourth year and am feeling my lengthening relationship with the theater.”

Petosa likes to draw an analogy between the way songs relate to each other on a concept LP and the way the artistic notion of a theater company can emerge through individual plays that relate to each other to create a larger mosaic of artistry. For the upcoming season, Petosa chose “Identity” as the “title of the LP” and selected plays that focus on characters who must discover who they are in the contexts in which they find themselves.

“Broken Glass” will to kick off the season both as part of the national celebration of the playwright’s birth and as a way to showcase a play Petosa fell in love with when he first directed it in 1996 while artistic director at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center for the Arts.

“This is a late play of Miller’s, and I find that as he got older, he became more revelatory and personal in his writing,” Petosa said. “There is an intimacy and an honesty that seems to come more directly out of our own humanity in a very revealing way.”

The Olivier Award-winning and Tony-nominated drama takes place on November 11, 1938, the day after “Kristallnacht” (literally, “Night of Crystal,” referring to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10,1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops).

Sylvia Gellburg has suddenly lost the ability to walk and her husband, Phillip, desperately seeks a cure. The play ostensibly examines the Gellburgs’ failed marriage, but in the process it also uncovers the inner conflicts of those straddling the worlds of their immigrant parents’ Jewish values and the modern American ideal of assimilation and material success.

“This play speaks to the theme of ‘identity’ so perfectly, but you really have to have a terrific company that’s perfect for the play. You can’t just do it with anybody. It has to be someone who connects to it in a visceral way” said Petosa.

When he got to know Jeremiah Kissel’s work in New Rep’s 2014 production of “Imagining Madoff” (see review at https://shelleysackett.com/2014/01/16/bernie-madoff-jewish-rogue-or-rogue-jew/), he had his Phillip. “Jerry was just born to play this role and I knew Anne Gottlieb would be splendid as Sylvia,” he said.

Also, “Broken Glass” had never been performed in Boston. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to do an Arthur Miller centennial piece, let’s do an area premiere,’ and that became very exciting,” Petosa added.

Wearing his director’s hat, Petosa reflected about which character most resonated with him. “For me, the central character is the marriage,” he said, noting that the Phillip-Sylvia relationship is the most compelling human aspect of the play. “How the other characters impact on the demise of that relationship is the engine of the play.”

Petosa delights in telling about his experience with Mr. Miller when he directed the play in 1996. “This is a great story,” he begins. “I’m always amazed by the times you have in the theatrical world where you get to touch people of significance or real artistic magnitude and by just how generous oft times those people are.”

Mr. Miller was living in Connecticut in 1996. He offered to make himself available everyday after 5 p.m. (he wrote every afternoon until that time) throughout the rehearsal phase. Petosa took him up on his offer many times.

“He sent a telegram on opening night in the old theatrical tradition and spoke so tenderly about what he called ‘the little play.’ You could just feel the affection he had for the characters and the play.

“That has become the experience that defines Arthur Miller for me. It just speaks volumes about the man.” Petosa said.

“Broken Glass” also resonates with Petosa in a personal way, with a message he hopes the audience will take away. For him, the play is about “the whole question of the tragedy of the common man and the potency of self-destruction, of not being comfortable in one’s own skin and of feeling a sense of one’s victimization, of ‘lost-ness’…,” he said, pausing.

He continued, “… and to fight against that and not be brought down because of a sense of not belonging in some main stream sense of power structure. I think it’s a hugely cautionary tale and one that makes you feel a sense of grief.”

As he begins his fourth season at New Rep Theatre’s artistic helm, Petosa is humble about taking credit for the company’s soaring popularity during his tenure. “We really are trying hard to bring interesting things to our stage,” he said.