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Through a Glass Darkly

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Through a Glass Darkly
Chris Sarandon, Ben Rosenfield, Carey Mulligan, and Jason Butler Harner.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

The most vexing question facing most stage adaptations of movies is: Why? If a gifted director — or, worse, an auteur — has devised a motion picture that tells a complete and fulfilling story on film, what all can be added to it by performing it live? Even if the end result is superb, anyone attempting such a project must provide an ironclad answer to this if they want to succeed. And despite a hefty amount of talent signed on, no one involved with the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Through a Glass Darkly, which is being performed at New York Theatre Workshop, convinces you that there was any good reason for Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 drama to migrate from celluloid.

The problem is not with the new script, which made its debut at London’s Almeida Theatre last year. Jenny Worton has remained extremely faithful, and never loses sight of the tale’s most important elements. Nor is the issue that the show is poorly directed; David Leveaux’s staging is as taut and fat free as it can be. Poor acting is also not at fault. Jason Butler Harner, Carey Mulligan, Ben Rosenfield, and Chris Sarandon have crafted complex characterizations of the four members of a family coping with the limits of their love for each other and mortality during the summer they’re sharing a resort house on a remote island. Theoretically, the play should have everything it requires.

But if it never entirely fails, it also never soars. Bergman’s Academy Award and Golden Globe winning original utilized the dense nature of his setting (the Swedish island of Fårö) to imbue the atmosphere with a strange but essential foreboding. Given that the plot concerns whether the young woman Karin, who’s recently been released from an asylum, will overcome the debilitating mental disease from which she’s suffering, this was crucial. Without the sense that something dark and dangerous, yet compelling, exists just outside the characters’ fields of vision, their saga could too easily degenerate into a lengthy bicker-fest for a brooding brood whose members are only gradually discovering how much they actually care for each other. This is what the theatrical Through a Glass Darkly does not have.

The trouble begins with the design. The NYTW playing area is much wider and looks much deeper than that of the Atlantic’s usual home on 20th Street (which is currently undergoing renovation); having so much room for everyone to move about greatly diminishes any potential intimacy between them — they need to be tripping over each other, in every way, for the truths they’re all hiding to be believably revealed. Also, economically depicting multiple locations is more challenging in the theatre than on film, and Takeshi Kata’s unit set, which depicts a bloated and vaguely ramshackle cottage’s living room and bedroom, does not even attempt to suggest the greater diversity that was central to Bergman’s conception of an Alcatraz-like prison.

Without that, the grander implications are never as pressing as they ought to be. The significance of the brusque manner that’s consuming David (Sarandon), a terrible-but-successful writer who claims to be newly rehabilitated following a failed suicide attempt, is nowhere in evidence; he’s a straightforward, chilly jerk, not a broken father struggling with his emotional commitments. Karin’s husband, Martin (Harner), is a directionless cipher that evinces neither the frustration nor depth of caring that must define him. And Karin’s brother, Max (Rosenfield), seems less like a young man approaching a post-adolescent crossroads than a natural victim who’s already accepted his fate. Cameras and lenses let you focus on the subtleties of their psychologies, and the lack of those unspoken magnifications here — without larger-scale rewriting or reworking to fill in the gaps — rob these people of their impact, despite the actors’ otherwise commendable portrayals.

Mulligan has the most to work with as Karin, and makes her an appropriately heartbreaking figure of a woman on the verge of disintegration. (She accomplished a similar feat with Nina in the 2008 Broadway revival of The Seagull.) The way Mulligan slowly, almost methodically, guides Karin from being certain of her health to understanding and accepting the likeliness of her imminent finality, is a marvelous example of sweeping theatrical acting. Alas, smaller strokes, not bigger ones, are what this material demands, and without them Karin — and everything that surrounds her — becomes almost microscopic.

Running 90 minutes with no intermission, Through a Glass Darkly is resourceful and efficient, determined not to waste your time as it transforms this family barely aware of its existence into one that’s condemned by it. But even so it feels overlong as it tries to justify the bare minimum of fuss it generates without any trace of heat. For a show so intent on inspiring you, like its characters, to reflect on the catalytic nature of life and death, it does little but leave you wondering what the point is of a mirror that’s too dark and dusty for you to make out anything in it at all.


Through a Glass Darkly
Through July 3
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral