A high-minded discourse on love, hate, betrayal and bigamy, Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” contains enough provocative and penetrating insights to justify award recognition, but it works more as a philosophical treatise than as cohesive drama.
Never stated is the startling resemblance Miller’s main character, Lyman (Stephen Macht), bears to the playwright’s colleague Elia Kazan. Like Lyman, Kazan — as autobiography “A Life” details — was a serial philanderer, a man who deceived his women and lived each day to the narcissistic hilt because he feared death’s ever-present shadow.
In “Mt. Morgan,” the central figure is an insurance exec, whose Porsche goes out of control and plunges down a slippery mountain. Seriously injured and placed in an upstate New York hospital, he must face the consequences of his bigamy when two wives, Theo (Ellen Geer) and Leah (Melora Marshall), visit his bedside and become uncomfortably aware of each other.
The situation is ripe with possibilities, and Macht’s bombastic, often comical portrayal gives the play a jangling energy. Macht treats his role as a juicy star turn, appropriate for a character defined as a recklessly sexual, “splendidly hungry man.”
He jokes with sympathetic Nurse Logan (Earnestine Phillips, in an amusing perf), and frequently overcomes the speech-heavy aspects of his part with explosive bravado. He barrels through such lines as “I walk in the valley of your thighs,” and slams across the cruelly selfish aspects of a greedy, grown-up child who can’t comprehend why he isn’t entitled to the devotion of two spouses.
Suspense and dread — which used to be signature Miller specialties — are in short supply, since we never feel that Lyman will reconcile with either wife. Where Macht’s characterization works is in showing how a man can rationalize to himself so consistently that he believes his lies and actually coats them with virtue.
Act one benefits from Heidi Davis’ boldly passionate direction, and it’s a disappointment when act two grows increasingly diffused and overlong. At first, Miller is careful to delineate sharply between Lyman’s wives — Geer’s educated, Waspy Theo and Marshall’s sexually liberated Jewish Leah — but when the women meet, their clashes are too lightweight, and they never have that one confrontation that would set the stage on fire.
Despite a lack of potent interaction with each other, each actress makes the most of her character. Geer capably projects the horror of knowing that she often bores her husband, and does wonders with moments expressing shock that the fearful man she lived with for over three decades became a hell-raising daredevil after hooking up with Leah.
Marshall catches the complexity of a young woman who has no underlying faith in romantic permanence, and touchingly conveys concern for the young son left stranded and torn apart by Lyman’s treachery. The actress skillfully shows that Leah, on a deeper level, understands that her husband is a rogue, yet adores him so much she stifled such issues.
As the compassionate, confused family attorney, William Dennis Hunt gives strength to an undeveloped personality that exists as a device to dispense direction and wisdom. His role is much like the cardboard lawyer confidante in “A View From the Bridge,” but when he gets a chance at a gripping theatrical moment — such as the cry “You must all stop loving him” — he gives it credibility and power.
Even thinner is the part of Lyman’s unforgiving daughter, Bessie (Willow Geer), whose reactions rarely venture beyond an angry “I’m only here because of Mother” attitude.
In the end, Lyman’s bigamy situation emerges as less compelling than his panic about advancing age, and when he screams, “Fuck death and dying,” the play bursts beyond commentary and forcefully addresses a universal fear.