Writing The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
Arthur Miller, America's greatest living playwright, on his newest work.
"Oh the double heat of two blessed wives--this is heaven!" cries Lyman Felt, the thoroughly contemporary hero of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. Lyman, an insurance salesman who bears absolutely no resemblance to Willy Loman, has managed to carry on a double life for nine years, maintaining a wife and daughter in Manhattan and a wife and son in upstate New York. Amazingly, everybody's happy--until Lyman takes a possibly suicidal drive down an icy mountain, crashes his Porsche, and wakes up to find the two Mrs. Felts together beside his hospital bed.
"Poor soul, he's really caught in a terrible bind," Miller says with a mischievous chuckle. The playwright had just watched Patrick Stewart as Lyman curl up in a rehearsal room bed with "wives" Frances Conroy and Katy Selverstone. Miller, the actors, and director David Esbjornson gathered last week to chat about the Broadway production of Mt. Morgan, opening April 9 at the Ambassador Theatre. All except Selverstone are veterans of the play's 1998 Public Theater production, which drew lively--and by no means universally positive--reviews. (Ben Brantley of The New York Times, for one, declared that Mt. Morgan "smells musty.") Still, Stewart's star power and a renewed interest in Miller assured a Broadway run for the play, written in 1991 but eerily in tune with the country's current obsession with morality. A perfect male angst/black comedy double-feature, in fact, would be Mt. Morgan followed by the hit movie American Beauty.
"I cannot stress too much how funny and sexy this play is," says Stewart, who manages to convey both qualities as he dashes around the stage in Lyman's hospital gown, romancing both wives in flashback sequences. "Here is a man in his late 50s, admitting that he still wants everything [in life] as much as he did when he was 18."
In interviews before the Public production, Stewart spoke seriously about the challenge of playing such a supremely selfish character. (Think Guido Contini of Nine living on Park Avenue.) This time around, the actor seems eager to emphasize the fun side of portraying a man willing to tell Wife #2, "I may be a bastard but I am not a hypocrite!" Admits Stewart, "I have always liked and admired Lyman, which is a remark that is likely to get me into trouble. I enjoy his lust for living and his determination to suck every bit of marrow out of the bones of life. Of course, that passion results in the virtual destruction of the lives of several other people. And the play raises the question: Is it possible to be happy oneself and make someone else happy at the same time? I feel for Lyman's misery in knowing the pain he has caused, and yet he cannot free himself from the delicious love of being alive in the world. I have enjoyed a kind of liberation that has come out of playing Lyman."
The feisty actresses who play Lyman's wives are equally enamored of their characters. "She's a fabulous woman," Conroy says of Theodora Felt, a blunt, well-bred WASP who has put up with Lyman's shenanigans for more than 30 years. "She loves her home and she loves this man, even though he's brought her a lot of pain."
Conroy has played her share of wallflowers over the years (The Secret Rapture, The Little Foxes, Ring Round the Moon), but she is fierce and funny as Theo, and she heartily disapproves of society's tendency to blame the victim. "In situations like this, people get down on the woman in some odd way," she asserts. "I mean, this woman has done nothing but lead her life and run a fabulous household, and the ground opens up beneath her feet. How do you proceed when everything you thought was true for the last nine years is based on a reality that did not exist?"
For Katy Selverstone, who plays 30ish, independent Leah Felt, Miller's depiction of a May-December romance rings true. "Leah's a woman who has never had a relationship with a man who challenges her," Selverstone explains. "As she says in the play, Lyman is 'a spendidly hungry man,' and there's something about his hunger and his complexity that excites her. It's not that he fools [Theo and Leah] or that we're stupid; he's so vital and so exciting, you totally believe that he could get both of these women and keep these balls in the air." Selverstone laughs. "And it is Patrick Stewart--shabby he's not." (Or as Conroy puts it, "Did you see him in those boxer shorts? My goodness!") Miller expresses satisfaction with Stewart's full-bodied performance as Lyman. "He's got a lot of male energy," the playwright says of his leading man. "Aside from his talent, you know that he's a man, and that helps a lot."
Reflecting on Lyman's psyche, Miller adds, "He's a man who has everything but he wants a little more. He's colliding with himself; there's no end to the need, and finally we see the price that must be paid for that."
Though Miller reportedly wrote Mt. Morgan in response to the greedy Reagan years, he seems pleased that the play's themes resonate in the spring of 2000. "It's an era of infinite opportunity, which drives people nuts," he says with a laugh. "And we're all open to temptation." The playwright points out that both men and women seem to identify with Lyman's predicament. "Of course, there are moralistic people who can't see past their condemnation of his behavior, but most women seem to like him."
At this point in his remarkable career, Arthur Miller could be expected to sit back and congratulate himself on the newfound success of his early works. But the playwright--who will celebrate his 85th birthday on October 17 but seems decades younger--quickly turns the conversation toward the future. Would he ever have expected to see four excellent productions of his plays (A View from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman, The Price, and now Mt. Morgan) on Broadway in two years? "No," he says mildly, "and I wouldn't have expected that I would write a new play. It's called Resurrection Blues, and I only finished it a couple of weeks ago. It's kind of satiric but moving; I'm not very good at summarizing these things. Now I have to decide where to do it first, away from the big time. [New York] is not an atmosphere conducive to creation. The tension is high because there's so much money resting on a poor little play."