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Cliffs Notes Bergman: The Atlantic Theater Company’s Through a Glass Darkly

Certainly, taking Bergman’s minimal characters and haunting island setting from celluloid to three dimensions was not a ready-made feat.

Cliffs Notes Bergman: The Atlantic Theater Company’s Through a Glass Darkly
Photo: Ari Mintz

If you’ve never seen the film Through a Glass Darkly, then there’s a fighting chance you might like Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic masterpiece, the great director’s starting point in a trilogy of soul-wrenching 1960s films that tackle God’s relationship—or lack thereof—to humanity. But if you have set eyes and ears on Bergman’s carefully crafted images and words, then experiencing Worton’s ham-fisted take on the original is as emotionally satisfying as reading a Cliffs Notes version of Moby Dick.

Which is not to say that adapting Through a Glass Darkly for the stage was a bad idea; in bringing to the screen what was essentially a psychologically fraught chamber play, Bergman, who also wrote the film, always acknowledged a creative debt to the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. Certainly, taking Bergman’s minimal characters and haunting island setting from celluloid to three dimensions was not a ready-made feat, but with some clever tweaking it could have been a worthwhile effort. Unfortunately, however, Worton and director David Leveaux fall far short of worthwhile, instead achieving an undesirable sort of artistic alchemy, where they turn movie gold into theatrical straw.

Worton keeps the contours of Bergman’s story the same: It’s 1960 and a family (now British rather than Swedish) is vacationing on a remote island in the Baltic Sea. Initially, the scene appears idyllic, as four laughing figures emerge from the water after a twilight swim. Karin (Carey Mulligan), a young woman with an ebullient demeanor sets a deceptive initial tone, exclaiming, “And I say that everything will be perfect this holiday!” As in a horror film, her blithe spirit portends only dark times.

The decisive crack in the genial façade comes from Karin’s husband, Martin (Jason Butler Harner), a physician, who privately updates David (Chris Sarandon), Karin’s father, about her mental health: Belying Karin’s wide grin and girlish manner, she’s a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s just been released from hospital. While pleading with the self-involved David, a writer of third-rate fiction, to show more parental warmth toward his troubled daughter, Martin likewise assures David that he will never leave Karin, no matter what, because he loves her and grown-ups should accept that love, in all its forms, is a burden. Of course, this sentiment is pure Strindberg.

Meanwhile, the romantic travails of Karin’s teenage brother, the gawky, shy, and painfully self-conscious Max (Ben Rosenfield), are just beginning. Max’s only female admirer is Karin, and their Freudian sibling bond, in stark contrast to Bergman, is handled by Worton and Leveaux without a hint of subtlety; the pair is content to mine the relationship more for its shock than thematic value. They also inexplicably marginalize the father-son conflict between David and Max that Bergman touchingly explores in the film.

Often compared in form to a string quartet, Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly is perfectly balanced, with each intricately drawn character tapping into deep reservoirs of angst, longing, and regret. As a result, every exchange, every silence, and, really, just every aspect of the film, is rich with multiple layers of meaning. For whatever reason, Worton chooses to flatten Bergman’s complex script, focusing all of her attention on Karin, while giving Harner, Sarandon, and Rosenfield anemic fiddles to play. More or less, what remains is a bland family drama.

Sadly, even Worton’s version of Karin is out of tune. Enticed by voices she believes are emanating from just beyond some shabby wallpaper, voices that might be waiting for God, Karin wants to wait with them. In the film, Harriet Andersson is unnerving as Karin, perched right on the precipice between this world and the next; her Karin might be insane, or she might be a modern saint, privileged to hear and perhaps to see what no other human being can. Mulligan’s Karin, on the other hand, comes off as run-of-the-mill crazy—which, since Mulligan is such a talented actor, manages to be enough to hold one’s attention, if little more.

The son of a minister, Bergman wants to wrestle with God and find out whether He is friend or foe or simply a disinterested bystander. But for Worton, God is, at most, a plot point, just the pervy supernatural entity on the other side of the wallpaper who makes you want to snog your brother.

In the absence of a knowable God, Bergman brought the focus of Through a Glass Darkly back to the temporal realm and to a question that must have bothered his conscience—specifically, whether artists, even mediocre ones, must choose between their art and the well-being of the people they have a responsibility to love. Worton thinks the answer is obvious, and it’s ultimately this certainty that makes her play so much less intriguing than Bergman’s film.

The Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Through a Glass Darkly continues through July 3 at the New York Theatre Workshop.

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