A simple divorce. That would have solved everything -- or at any rate the central legal and moral problem. It would have washed away guilt about and charges of bigamy, which now rise to confront Lyman Felt in the Clearhaven Memorial Hospital in Elmira, N.Y., after he has -- somewhat mysteriously, perhaps deliberately -- crashed his sports car and landed in the hospital.
But it's too late for solutions. It's time for misery and defiance in Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" at the Ambassador.
The production is actually a transfer of the off-Broadway mounting of the play at the Public Theater in 1998. In the evocative, abstract, flexible set by John Arnone, dominated by the patient's bed, director David Esbjornson stages the drama of the man coming to terms with the present and the past.
The man, Lyman Felt, is played again by Patrick Stewart, and played as a lovable monster of fatuous vanity and arrogant presumption. Stewart has enlarged his performance so that it fills, not always agreeably, the interstices of the set. The man is as vain as a Macy's Thanksgiving float, as expansive as Zorba the Greek, as self-centered as Richard III. Except that he's standing for life -- or so he says.
Some 10 years ago, on a business trip, he found Leah (Katy Selverstone, new and bland in the role), a young woman in Elmira. She's an insurance woman (rather improbably) and she tumbles for his wild, anarchic ways (driving and flying and such like). She overcomes her yen for abortion and agrees to have his child after he tells her he's getting a divorce.
He half-imagines, half-remembers meeting his first (and only) wife, Theo (Frances Conroy, repeating her earlier, excellent impersonation of a WASP woman wed to an exuberant and dangerous outsider). Theo wears fur and is, in Miller's imagination, an Episcopal Fifth Avenue type. Leah wears a cloth coat with fur lining and is Jewish.
The two tend, in this vision of things, to be either domestic caricatures of womanhood (we see them as porcelain figures discussing recipes) or shrews bitterly clashing.
Lyman relives scenes from his past, from the days when he mastered the world -- animals subdued before his first wife and his daughter in Africa; Leah taken to glimpse his (supposedly) ex-wife through the window.
His power is awesome, it seems. But something is wrong. The car ride was a cry for help, a plea for discovery, and simultaneously a way to end it all. His first wife -- whom he genuinely likes despite being bored with her -- goes mad. The second woman is angry and leaves him.
He is, in a sense, fouled by the system -- or by something in the capitalist scheme of things. And he has been a good liberal who resists ultimate male power. "I feel a pure love for you all," he cries out, "but I am condemned." He finds solace at the end only in the memory of an African-American pianist (we see him) and in the family stories of his Afircan-American black nurse.
If only the world could accommodate male dreams. This seems a play written from inside the prison of the masculine fantasy -- without enough distance.
As Lyman Felt, the joyously eloquent, sexually rapacious and relentlessly self-justifying bigamist at the center of ''The Ride Down Mount Morgan,'' Arthur Miller's seriously discomforting comedy that opened at the Ambassador Theater on Broadway yesterday, Patrick Stewart makes a fine devil for a new millennium.
A man who wants everything and can deny himself nothing, Lyman suffers great loss as a result -- public humiliation, private desperation -- but in the end, well, the pleasure of living his carefully maintained double life was probably worth its ultimate destruction. Indeed, in Mr. Miller's intelligent and savage satire, Lyman doesn't really come to grief; by narrow-minded interpretation, the play makes a pretty good case for bigamy as a lifestyle choice. And it is the achievement of Mr. Stewart, who plays Lyman with a vigorous moment-to-moment charm that feels downright presidential, that such stunning amorality seems nearly reasonable. It's hard to imagine a more sympathetic creep.
As the latest entry in the astonishing resurrection of Mr. Miller's work on Broadway (and elsewhere) over the last two years, ''The Ride Down Mount Morgan'' bears comparison to his other recently revived plays, not least because it revisits, in a comic vein unusual for this most sober playwright, many of their concerns.
It has the dangerous lure of reckless desire that brought down Eddie Carbone in ''A View From the Bridge''; in its mix of dream, memory and temporal reality it effects a psychological excavation on Lyman similar to that visited on Willy Loman in ''Death of a Salesman.'' And as in ''The Price,'' in which two brothers enact a debate over whether discarding or refusing to forget the unhappy past is the more responsible path to the future, at the play's center is a fierce moral argument, fully articulated on both sides.
''Mount Morgan'' doesn't pack the gut punch of any of those, but it is a pretty good poke in the side. Lyman's lust doesn't kill him, after all. The psychodrama releases in him more chagrin than potent shame and the moral debate is bogus; one side of the scale, the one that makes Lyman's case for the righteousness of deception, has Mr. Miller's thumb on it. In his rhetorical gifts, his urgent appetites, his energy, Lyman is simply given more weapons than either of his wives -- one Protestant, one Jewish; his desire has a catholic embrace -- who are armed with little more than hurt and outrage.
''Then explain to yourself,'' Lyman bellows to Theo, his older wife, ''how this worthless, loveless, treacherous clam could have single-handedly made two such different women happier than they'd ever been in their lives!''
The truth in the statement reduces her name-calling to a sputter.
First produced in London in 1991, the play was written, Mr. Miller has said, with a political motivation, as a response to the Reagan 80's, when greed loomed as good, selfishness a virtue. And indeed, Lyman, a powerful insurance executive, is drawn as a caricature of invincibility in the Tom Wolfe ''master of the universe'' mode.
But as the play opens, that view of himself is under serious challenge. The setting is a hospital room near Elmira, N.Y., where Lyman is recovering from a near-fatal auto accident, having recklessly taken his Porsche on the titular journey in the middle of a snowstorm. When the curtain rises, he is waking to himself after what he thinks is a bad dream but is in fact the case: that the nurse has summoned Theo (Frances Conroy), his wife of 30 years, from Manhattan and that she has arrived with their adult daughter (Shannon Burkett) in Elmira, where he spends half his time with his second, younger wife, Leah (Katy Selverstone), who has also shown up at the hospital and with whom he has a son.
That the wives have met is his real-life nightmare, but it is also true that in his delirium he has looked into the void and found, to his relief, no condemnation there. In a production given a gleaming ''unmoored to the real world'' look by John Arnone, its talkiness crisply paced under the polished direction of David Esbjornson (both are significant players in the creation of Lyman's glib and godless head game), the play, replete with flashbacks and fantasies, takes the form of Lyman's ardent explanation of himself to his disbelieving families.
It isn't that Lyman is without guilt. He berates himself -- ''No guts'' -- for his failure to split from Theo when, as a mere philanderer, he decides to marry Leah so she will not abort her pregnancy. And he suffers recriminations in dreams: in one startlingly cartoonish sequence the wives enter wearing crows' heads, peck out his innards and disembowel him with their beaks. But he fully believes that what perpetuating his deception has cost him in self-rebuke is full payment for his actions. And he is entirely without shame. He's the kind of man who blithely informs his nurse, a black woman, that his business has ''the biggest training program of any company for you guys''; who uses his lackey lawyer as a confessor from whom he presumes absolution; and who, when he says, ''a man can be faithful to himself or to other people, but not to both, at least not happily,'' invokes the Scriptures for confirmation.
''We all know this,'' he tells the lawyer, Tom Wilson (John C. Vennema), ''but it's immoral to admit that the first law of life is betrayal; why else did those rabbis pick Cain and Abel to open the Bible?''
Mr. Stewart, looking fit and bouncy as a boy (he appears, fleetingly, stripped to his briefs), plays Lyman with the lustiness of a Mediterranean peasant and an ineffable energy for sucking the pleasure out of existence, which he makes an enviable quality. Beneath a business-trim, Clinton-silver hairpiece (its transformative power on his famously bald pate is an astonishment), he has abandoned his ordinarily kingly authority for the rakishness of a spoiled prince, mischievously bawdy in a hospital gown. Grinning in jumpy amusement or howling in dismay at the knots he has tied in his life, he always seems enlivened.
In one flashback scene, he stares down a lion on the loose during an African safari and bellows his secret fears in the face of the beast. It's a wildly overwrought idea, but Mr. Stewart makes a credibly invigorating moment of it.
In a conspiracy of playwright and director, none of the other actors are allowed an equivalent animation. As Theo, a minister's daughter, the formidable Ms. Conroy is a walking bust of WASPy and waspish rectitude. Leah, a businesswoman whom Lyman first seduces across a conference table, is played by Ms. Selverstone with a combative veneer but the soul of a lonely sex kitten.
Neither character is a match for Lyman in the department of ingratiation. Slyly, maybe insidiously, Mr. Miller wants to tease us with the feeling that Lyman actually deserves to have them both. And under Mr. Esbjornson's direction, the two actors deliver their lines in a declamatory, less-than-engaged elocution. The same is true of Mr. Vennema and Ms. Burkett. In the world of this play, Mr. Stewart's Lyman rules; everyone seems more connected when he's at the hub of the action.
''Mount Morgan'' has been revived two other times since its initial production nine years ago, most recently with Mr. Stewart, Ms. Conroy and Mr. Vennema, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1998. Whether the Broadway version has wrought significant improvement on the others is hard to say -- I hadn't seen it before -- but it does feel very much as though the play has found its moment.
With the White House scandal receding to a footnote, its lasting impact may be the official imprimatur it gave to a national position on profligacy; ultimately it's forgivable. The new century is a blank slate when it comes to moral convention, isn't it?
By now the baby boomers have advanced to an age in which tedium is the test of marriage; they, or at least the theatergoers among them, have made ''Dinner With Friends,'' a play by Donald Margulies that deals earnestly with the subject, a surprise Off Broadway hit.
''Why does anyone stay together once they realize who they're with?'' an exasperated Theo says in ''Mount Morgan,'' a line that, at the performance I saw, was greeted not only with sustained laughter, but applause.
Mr. Miller knows his audience. At such a time, he is letting us know, the devil will have his due.
Patrick Stewart's star power and Broadway's revived affection for Arthur Miller may well combine to make a hit of "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," but it will be an uphill battle, as it were. This phantasmagoric comedy-drama about a latter-day bigamist was hardly universally acclaimed upon its New York debut at the Public Theater in 1998. That production, directed by David Esbjornson, has now been re-created for the play's Broadway premiere, and it still doesn't make a strong case for this talky and unengaging tale of a man reckoning with his moral lapses and the impulses behind them.
Stewart plays Lyman Felt, a successful insurance exec who wakes up in a hospital bed in upstate New York after skiing down a mountainside in his Porsche. When an attentive nurse (Oni Faida Lampley) informs him his wife has been notified, Lyman is visited by some disturbing double visions. The fact is he has two wives: the genteel WASP Theo (Frances Conroy), who lives in Manhattan, as does their grown daughter Bessie (Shannon Burkett); and the younger, Jewish Leah (Katy Selverstone), who is bringing up their young son Ben upstate in Elmira, where Lyman spends a lot of time -- not surprisingly -- supposedly on business.
In the play's early scenes, punched up for Broadway to a somewhat bug-eyed, cartoonish pitch, Lyman imagines his wives meeting, only to be told that his nightmare has become a reality -- they've met, and he's got some explaining to do. While his exasperated lawyer Tom (John C. Vennema) tries to keep the press at bay and his two wives circle each other warily, Lyman relives in his mind the turning points that brought him to this curious pass.
The past and the present intersect in Lyman's addled mind as the play unfolds in brief scenes that slide somewhat bumpily into each other (the kaleidoscopic colors of Brian MacDevitt's lighting have a dreamy allure, but John Arnone's shifting, minimalist sets don't help bring focus to a scattered narrative).
Miller has often explored how men's lives can unravel through lapses or flaws in their essentially decent characters. His most compelling protagonists are good men above all else; that's what gives their undoing its noble piteousness.
Lyman Felt, by contrast, is outlandishly indecent, both superficially and profoundly. "A vulgar, unfeeling man," Theo calls him, and despite the tough-talking logic of his explanations in the play's superior second act, it's hard to disagree.
"A man can be faithful to himself or to other people, but not to both," Lyman announces defiantly when the finger wagging begins, and this and many other of Lyman's arias of self-justification have provocative shards of truth in them.
"A man is a 14-room house," he later says. "In the bedroom he's asleep with his intelligent wife, in his living room he's rolling around with some bare-ass girl, in the library he's paying his taxes, in the yard he's raising tomatoes and in the cellar he's making a bomb to blow it all up."
Still later, he silences Theo's recriminations by telling her his years of bigamy were the happiest years of their marriage, "because I was never bored being with you" -- since he knew he'd soon be with someone else.
But for all Miller's attempts to deepen Lyman's character by exploring the primal and universal impulses behind his nefarious behavior -- our instinctive selfishness, our natural itch for something new -- Lyman isn't so much a complex man as an overgrown child, wanting to know what's so wrong about taking that extra trip to the cookie jar. Lyman spends much of the play in a hospital bed, and by the end it begins to look mighty like a crib.
The result is a play that, like its loudly swaggering protagonist, seems hollow at the core. There are many sensitive and suggestive patches of writing, but there are also some that stray strangely close to the soap operatic -- perhaps inevitably, given the tabloid-friendly nature of this moral dilemma. And Esbjornson's direction seems somewhat more strident here, perhaps in an attempt to adjust to the larger size of the Ambassador Theater.
At the Public, Conroy's Theo was a tremulous, touching character who held onto her dignity even when she was required to lose her skirt, in a late and strange scene of emotional collapse. Here, Conroy gives a funnier but less moving performance, putting the accent on Theo's comical unhinging and downplaying the real roots of her pain. It's still a fine performance, but its subtleties have been abraded by the production's coarse edges. The pretty, dark-eyed Selverstone is new to the production, but like her predecessor in the role downtown, she finds minimal warmth or authentic feeling in the role of Leah. Burkett, as Lyman's outraged daughter Bessie, has little hope of making much from her alternately weepy and shrill character.
Stewart, of course, is the production's raison d'etre, and his natural charisma and offhand command of the stage will go a long way toward holding the audience's focus. He naturally exudes the vigorous force of Lyman's character, the magnetic charm that keeps his wives relentlessly drawn to his orbit even when they're only there to scold. But Stewart gives voice to Lyman through a John Wayne-ish bellow that sometimes only accents the emptiness of his arrogant pronouncements and his protestations of real anguish.
In the end we're to believe it's a bone-deep fear of death, the soul's inchoate yearning for immortality, that led Lyman into his betrayals. The play ends with an oblique moment of revelation between Lyman and his nurse -- Lyman struggled for years to conquer his terror of death in its many forms and he suddenly sees that life can be lived with dignity and ease alongside it. The scene seems meant to communicate something deeply poignant, but like much else here, it doesn't quite come off.
Although it focuses on a man leading a double life, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" is a stubbornly lifeless play.