The somber cello (performed live by Diana Elledge) that intersects scenes in the North Coast Rep’s production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass sets the tone for a play that is relentlessly grim. The horror of Kristallnacht and the accompanying Nazi atrocities in Germany of 1938 hover like a malevolent cloud, while the pitiably sad end days of Phillip and Sylvia Gellberg’s life together in Brooklyn are front and center. The torment and desperation never let up, and they turn to melodrama, particularly in Act 2 when secrets and confessions come … too late.
Phillip Gellberg (don’t call him “Goldberg”) is a self-loathing Jew who has also forgotten how to love his wife, Sylvia, other than by merely possessing her. Their estrangement is complicated by Sylvia’s hysterical (that’s doctor-speak for psychosomatic, courtesy of Dr. Harry Hyman) obsession with the bloodshed and inhumanity going on in Germany. Her hysteria has left her paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair, clutching graphic newspaper reports. This frustrates and angers Phillip all the more, and he’s got plenty of anger already. Even as the doctor, who’s come between the two of them, tries to reason out the truth, the Gellbergs seem destined for despair. Cue the cello.
Ralph Elias is most effective as Phillip when he’s simmering and not boiling over. As such, his scenes with North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein, nicely portraying Dr. Hyman, are more compelling than those with Elaine Rivkin, who is Sylvia. Speaking of Rivkin, she does hysterical (again, Hyman’s word) quite well, though the character as written seems to be grasping at any straw, leaving unclear what – or whom – she’s looking for in her heart of hearts.
Director Rosina Reynolds has her cast (which also includes Shana Wride, John Herzog and Kerry McCue) potent and on point, but the play’s narrative is one with too many targets, and too many regrets and recriminations. You want to embrace the most sympathetic figure, but by the time you decide who that is, the foreseeable end to Sylvia’s paralysis and Phillip’s self-loathing have coincided, and there is darkness. Questions unanswered. Cello silent.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.