Just about everything that can go wrong with a show does so in Through a Glass Darkly, Jenny Worton’s theatrical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film of that name. In the first place: Why adapt one of Bergman’s lesser movies that, moreover, does not transfer comfortably onto the stage?
It takes place on one of those islands that Swedes seek out for their summer vacation, in this case, a family-owned beach house. Here we have the widower David, a successful but less than great novelist and poor father his married daughter, Karin, and sixteen-year-old son, Max (Minus in the movie) plus Karin’s doctor husband, Martin. Karin suffers from acute schizophrenia, and has only recently been released from hospitalizationj. Her late mother had the same ailment, which is incurable, but allows for remissions between inevitable relapses.
On this island, where a big net is periodically deployed by the family to catch fish, human beings too seem to be trapped in a net of suffering. There are all sorts of confrontations, and Karin devastatingly even finds and reads her father’s diary, which mentions the hopelessness of her case and the slick use he makes of her symptoms for his fictional characters.
Meanwhile Max (a very un-Swedish name) has written a play he wants his father to comment on, but David ignores. Max and Karin pull together in their stand against their elders, which leads to what seems to be an episode of incest. She has visions induced by the patterns of the wallpaper-–here a crack in the wall—beyond which lies an imaginary space, to return Karin to the hospital whence she hears voices and expects the coming of God, In the film, this was a dread spider-god threatening to invade her; the play defangs much of this, as it also omits or softens other things.
When the ambulance helicopter arrives in the movie, it casts a terrifying spider-shaped shadow that really scares the hell out of Karin and isn’t in the play. I don’tbelieve I can excuse these lamentable lacunae as not wishing to compete with the troubled Spiderman musical.
It’s a long time since I saw the Bergman movie, but I cannot believe that its dialogue is as pedestrian, and its obvious difference as justified, as Jenny Worton seems to think. Furthermore, none of the performances equals those of the Bergman cast. Chris Sarandon’s David has neither the manifest guilt feelings or compensatory glibness of Bergman’s Bjornstrand; Jason Butler Harner’s Martin cannot make his fake British accent suggest Sweden; Ben Rosenfield’s Max is not bad in his Brooklynish way; and Carey Mulligan’s Karin, though competent, is far too British to blend with the others.
Very much to blame is the director, David Leveaux, a fellow of infinite ineptitude, whom the American theater keeps inexplicably importing, and who has muddied countless plays in an unconscionable manner. Takashi Kata’s set, granted that the sprawling but underequipped stage is a handicap, does not manage to convey the atmospheric and symbolic importance of the surrounding Baltic Sea, despite the presence of a net and an overturned rowboat. Jess Goldstein’s costumes will do, but David Weiner’s lighting is no help either. Even the excellent David Van Tieghem has not provided his customary wizardry with his music and sound effects.
Saddest about Through a Glass Darkly is that, whereas Harriet Andersson was tremendously moving in the movie, Carey Mulligan, though personable, does not move us in the least onstage. This causes us to see the story as through a veil, dimly.
The fact-based musical, The Shaggs; Philosophy of the World, latches on to a good story: How Austin Wiggin, a despotic New Hampshire father, tried to turn his three untalented daughters into a lucrative rock band and recording artists, and refused to take cacophony for an answer. Even the girls could not escape the sense of failure, and the clandestine marriage of one of them added difficulties.
Gunnar Madsen’s music has its inconsistent moments; Joy Gregory’s book avoids some but not all banalities. The Madsen-Gregory lyrics are at best serviceable. Peter Friedman, a consummate actor, gets all of Austin’s drama, but is no great singer. The girls—Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton—are fine, as are Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Cahoon and Steve Routman in supporting roles. (I am tired of the mannered Annie Golden, who plays the mother.)
Mimi Lien’s whimsical set is effective, as are Emily Rebholz’s droll costumes. Ken Roht’s minimalist choreography is apt, as is John Lang’s savvy direction, except when too much shouting overpowers the text. The heavy-handed ironies begin to wear us down at the show’s excessive length, and, after a while, I even lost amusement from the clever wig Friedman sports as Wiggin.
The lesson to be derived from this show is that its satire does not readily mix with good music. Where the music works, the satire pales; where the satire works, the music suffers. That is the philosophy of this reviewer; I leave the “philosophy of the world” to the manifold megalomania of its leading character.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.