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.