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A CurtainUp Review
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
By Elyse Sommer
When I saw the American premiere of The Ride Down Morgan at the 1996 Williamstown Theatre Festival (the world premiere was in London in 1991) I was particularly struck by Miller's ability to add a new bow to his string -- comedy. As such it was very much a new venture for the eighty-year-old playwright and a new adventure for the theater goer. In retrospect, it perhaps pushed the facrcical elements of Miller's version of The Captain's Paradise too hard.
Now the play has finally arrived in New York. New cast. New director. Newly revised script.
The essential plot remains intact: Lyman Felt, the anti-hero insurance tycoon, epitomizes the American Dream come true and risks it all by living out the fantasy of having two wives -- Theo, his elegant Protestant wife of thirty-two years; and Leah, a younger more au courant Jewish career woman. When his car (a Porsche, what else?) crashes down an icy road near the town where he lives with his trophy wife, the hospital notifies his New York as well as his local wife. End of secret life and beginning of public scandal and angry confrontations by both women.
But while the plot's dramatic arc remains unchanged, the changes wrought by rewriting, restaging and the serendipity of current events are quite seismic.
As portrayed by the charismatic Patrick Stewart and restructured by Mr. Miller, Lyman is now sexier, more seductive. He not only exudes a whimsical and youthful charm but considerable vulnerability. A salesman of the he-could-sell-you-the Brooklyn Bridge genre, he almost has you believing that his nine years of shuttling between two wives wasn't totally beyond the pale, or without some contributory negligence on the part of the women. After all he made wife #1, (Frances Conroy) the one esconced in a luxury apartment on New York's upper East Side happier than she'd been in years. And he rescued the second,(Meg Gibson), a fellow insurance entrepreneur in Elmira New York, from a life of meaningless relationships.
Much of the play's change has more to do with the shifting socio-economic currents than anything else. What was a comic take on the excessive self-indulgence of the Reagan era when the play first surfaced in London is now tinged with an uncanny new relevancy, courtesy of Ken Starr and Bill Clinton. The details of Lyman Felt's and Bill Clinton's sexual pecadillos may differ, but the outlines are the same. Both bank on the appeal a successful man with an enormous appetite for having it all holds for women who should know enough to make better choices. Both are poster boys for the "bitch goddess" SUCCESS, but also compulsive about taking risks that are more dumb than daring.
The new Lyman is still very much an anti-hero. After his car crash on the icy Mt. Morgan Road lands him in a hospital bed, his first drug-muddled words are "life is one big tit to suck on." (In the second act, Leah rephrases this random grab at pleasure philosophy by telling Lyman "you're like a giant clam sitting at the bottom of the ocean waiting for anything to fall into your mouth"). When Lyman realizes that his accident has blown the lid off his bigamous existence, he has more excuses than broken bones to make his wives understand his behavior -- and, if possible, go along with it .
The differences in this Lyman's persona owes a good deal to Mr. Miller excision of the visible signs of his overall character flaws, most notably a partner whom he apparently helped to send to jail but in typically Lymanesque self-delusion is sure that this has not affected their friendship. That leaves the socially responsible businessman, the kind Miller has always wished was more in evidence, who happens to be an irresponsible husband and father. While the drama still revolves around the comic complications of Lyman's secret life the playwright has also shifted the emphasis on the larger fears that drive much midlife misbehavior. And so, Lyman as rewritten by Miller and played with an irresistible middle-aged boyishness by Stewart, is more scoundrel than villain, as appealing as he is despicable.
With the more rapacious, hard-edged Lyman of Miller's original script, it was not unreasonable for the farcical, visual joke elements to gain the upper hand of the comedy drama. The more vulnerable Lyman has led director David Esbjornson to eliminate most of the sight gags, which allows Frances Conroy to turn the stereotypically cool and collected Protestant into a woman of dignity and deep feelings, with flashes of wit and yes, vulgarity. Her counterpart, the Jewish Leah (Meg Gibson), falls a bit short on the emotional and sexual sizzle, and daughter Bessie (Kali Rocha) is better at conveying her anger than her pain.
Thanks to John Arnone's wonderfully apt and flexible set, the characters move easily between real and dream sequences. The hospital-like chrome panels, for example, work beautifully as windows in the Park office of Lyman's lawyer Tom, (whose pained efforts to make some order from the mess his client are played with fine understatement by John C. Vennema). The sheer curtains frequently drawn open and closed, like those used to turn hospital beds into private chambers, occasionally work like scrims to give us glimpses of nurse and visitors as well as a floating pianist (Glen Pearson) whose theme song is "You Made Me Love You." In one particularly striking scene, Lyman is on his hospital bed as all the people in his life float around him, with the piano gliding across the rear of the stage and his nurse ( suspended in her chair. In view of the news-made relevancy of Lyman's dilemma, the minor character of the nurse,(played with just the right degree of wryness by Oni Faida Lampley), can be viewed as representing the vast public that refuses to be shocked into endorsing impeachment. She tells Lyman "come down off that cross"-- they need the wood and when he asks her if the scandal surrounding him shocks her: "Last shock I had was off the cord of my vacuum."&
All things considered, this now fine-tuned and beautifully staged and performed comedy-drama makes for an entertaining and worthwhile theatrical outing. Does it measure up to Miller's top-of-the-line work? Why compare? Would that every octogenarian should be able to tend his muse as well.
Mt. Morgan on Broadway
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan premiere at Williamstown
CurtainUp's Arthur Miller backgrounder