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The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

Patrick Stewart,
currently starring in
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
In a boast to his lawyer, Lyman Felt, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, says, "I may be a bastard, but I'm not a hypocrite." It's one of the declarations he makes that could be regarded as something to enter into his personal plus-column. But that and whatever else can be said in the guy's favor--at 54, he's full of athletic sexuality--doesn't add up to enough for the people in his life to give two hoots about what happens to him.

Lyman (Patrick Stewart) is exactly what his given name implies. He's a man who lies. Also, he is lying in a hospital bed as the result of totaling his Porsche on an ice-covered mountain road, and he has lied to his two--count 'em, two--wives, allowing each to think that she's the only spouse he has. First-wife Theo (Frances Conroy) has been thinking it for a few decades; second-wife Leah (Katy Selverstone) has been thinking it for the nine years since Lyman he told her he finalized a divorce so he could marry her.

But while the Lyman part fits who he is, the Felt part doesn't. If the remorseless bigamist has ever felt anything other than amorphous desire, it's restricted to the desire for an overwhelming sense of satisfaction with himself. Theo and Leah and his children, Bessie (via Theo) and Benjamin (via Leah), are expected to make do with what they get, because Lyman is a man who mistakes randy impulses as sensitivity to others. Though he's one of the world's biggest takers, he believes he's giving of himself, showing by example how rich and exciting, unpredictable and adventurous life can be. He's a man who instructs those who orbit him with the two rules he follows: "Never trust anybody and never forgive."

Miller tells Lyman's resentment-provoking story in a non-linear fashion. It's been a formula for him since he found, in Death of a Salesman, that juggling timeframes can be an effective approach to enlivening a potentially plodding narrative. By the time Miller conjured After the Fall, the fictionalized account of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, he was comfortable sequencing scenes as they might pass through someone's frenzied mind. With The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

, which is a kind of tepid After the Fall (though definitely a few notches above his recent Mr. Peters' Connections), he fills in Lyman's biography by jumping from the Clearhaven Memorial Hospital to places on the map as far away geographically as Africa and as far away mentally as a man's most addled hallucination might stray.

The intention is to give accounts of Lyman's simultaneous marriages as well as to offer some view of him from his wives' perspectives. But though Miller says he's worked on this drama longer than he has on any of his other plays and has made many revisions since a 1998 New York Shakespeare Festival production which also featured Stewart, he still hasn't solved the core problem: Lyman. What piques Miller's interest in such a man is obvious, since the playwright has always been intrigued by men whose self-confidence--whether real or adapted--has landed them in situations far less lofty than they had hoped to attain. But Lyman is such a blowhard--not to mention such a humongous fool for imagining he could get away with his marital scam forever--that there's no caring about what befalls him. And, since he's shy of the ingredient that rivets audiences to Willy in Death of a Salesman or Eddie in A View From the Bridge, how much leeway can we persuaded to give a gasbag who never trusts anybody, never forgives, and only compounds the unattractiveness of his fulsome attitude by insisting that "the first rule of life is betrayal"?

Moreover, though his wives may have given him no end of connubial rewards over the years, the scenes from each marriage are mundane, talky, repetitive. And hard to believe--like the African safari Lyman and Theo are on when he faces down a lion. And senseless--like the time Lyman and Theo are at the beach and, in her estimation, he either does or doesn't intentionally save her from a shark attack. Further undermining interest in these liaisons is the fact that Theo is a cool, contained WASP, contrasted with Leah, who is a rather excitable Jew. (Costumer Elizabeth Hope Clancy does take the edge off the cliches by giving both women fur coats.) And yes, Theo's the sensible one--although she isn't sensible enough in snowy climes to pull boots over her Chanel pumps--and Leah is the one with the libido.

Miller also goes astray with the character of Lyman's daughter Bessie (Shannon Burkett), who whines for the first half of the play and scowls for the second, and with another of those black stage-nurses, Nurse Logan (Oni Faida Lampley), whose full of no-nonsense good humor. Miller does, however, manage to leaven his helter-skelter narrative with amusing lines. For example, Lyman's lawyer, Tom Wilson (John C. Vennema), who shows up to comfort Theo and to scratch his head over his client's follies, offers a quotable comment that the best that aging can offer is having "the right regrets." Theo, who goes through the proceedings in upper-class dudgeon, implores--perhaps with less command of grammar than might be expected--"Why does anyone stay together once they realize who they're with?" Would that wisecracks aged in pain were all it took to make an outstanding play.

One of the unexpected disappointments of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan is Patrick Stewart. Admitting in recent interviews that he shortchanged Lyman during the last run of the play at the Public, Stewart still hasn't wrestled his man to the ground. As the Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus darts about with a full head of graying hair, there's something of Lyman's machismo that escapes him--he appears to be striving for the grit. Or does he think Lyman is the one striving? Whatever it is, he lacks a basic conviction--a level of bombast that doesn't come to him naturally. (The irony is that Brian Dennehy, who made such an off-putting bundle of nerves out of Willie Loman in last year's Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, would probably be bang-on in this role...and while you're picturing that, picture what Miller would do with a character named Lyman Loman.)

Fortunately, the women do better. Conroy, who's taken on Deborah Kerr's middle-aged grace, makes Theo understandable and sympathetic, and Selverstone, with her long, dark hair swinging, turns Leah into a believable business woman-wife-mother who learns to her chagrin that she only thought she had it all. The other cast members--Vennema, Burkett, and Lampley--make no more or less of the lifeless dialogue Miller has given them. Director David Esbjornson gets his players on and off stage--and the multiple-fractured Lyman in and out of bed--with dispatch.

There is one stunning visual image in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan--for which John Arnone has designed gliding curtains and tall, stylized windows. In an early-action fever-dream, Lyman quite clearly sees a black man at a piano float laterally through the air and he identifies the man as Earl "Fatha" Hines, playing in that delicate, intricate style of his. In an instant, everything ineffable that Lyman holds in esteem and which he seems in danger of losing is made manifest. It's just too bad that once the fever breaks, it's all a downhill ride from there.

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