London Theater Puts New York in the Shadows

Article excerpt

'THERE is still excitement in the air there," Arthur Miller recently stated publicly, when asked why he was premiering his first major work in more than a decade in London rather than New York.

For years America's greatest living playwright has been decrying the decline of what he and many of his theater colleagues see as a destructive combination of forces on Broadway: soaring production costs that lead to commercial sensibilities reigning supreme; TV-weened audiences with decreasing attention spans; and the tyranny of a single newspaper critic who can make or break a show overnight.

London's West End theater climate is, to be sure, different. While there are strains that stem from the difficult economic times right now, an upbeat mood prevails. For starters, production costs are lower, and a show almost never closes immediately after it has opened.

With the plethora of drama critics in this city and a large theatergoing public - 7.4 million people visited shows in the first six months of 1991, according to the Society of West End Theatres - word-of-mouth remains the final arbiter. Indeed, it is not unknown for a show that takes a drubbing from the critics to go on to enjoy enormous success Les Miserables" being a prime example.

It is also true that the "excitement," as Mr. Miller puts it, surrounding the prospect of a serious play - as well as a musical - can still be summoned with relative ease. The electrically charged anticipation preceding the world premiere of Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," at the Wyndham's Theatre, is a good case in point. It's a pity, therefore, that the show itself didn't quite measure up. "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" is not another "Death of a Salesman" or "The Crucible." That isn't to say it's a dud. But classic in stature it's not. As such, Miller was right to premiere it here. In New York, it would probably have already been relegated to history; in this city the show continues to do respectable business.

The subject is bigamy. The underlying theme, however, is the inherent conflict between instincts and socially inculcated mores - between the atavistic "animal" part of us and higher urges. Miller also brings in the food-for-thought notion that, with the loosening of long-established moral strictures in many spheres, there is little left to turn to for guidance except such instinct.

"Socialism is dead and so is Christianity," opines one of his characters. "All that is left is simplicity."

The show opens with protagonist Lyman Felt (Tom Conti), a successful New York insurance salesman, who has raced his Porsche on a snowy winter's night down a mountain road only to crash and end up bandaged from head to foot.

His wife and daughter have been notified by the hospital, as has the other Mrs. Lyman; that the hospital does not question the existence of two spouses is one of many loose ends in the play. In the waiting room, the women gradually come to the realization that they are, and have been for a number of years, married to one and the same Porsche crasher. Another side of Miller

Miller employs an uncharacteristic degree of humor throughout the show. Initially, this is disappointing. Even the inherently farcical topic of bigamy has only so much humorous mileage in it. Moreover, the TV sitcom-style jokes are funny, but not quite funny enough. Whether Mr. Conti, a highly accomplished British actor of stage and film ("Reuben, Reuben"; "Shirley Valentine") is just too caricatured and laid back for the part or for Miller's script, it is hard to tell. One-liners aside, there are some deeper observations that keep the play afloat. And by the end it's clear that the work is a jeremiad on the widespread moral poverty of the 1990s: Without a strong guiding framework, suggests Miller, human beings tend to either fall back on the pursuit of personal pleasure or simply let knee-jerk social convention fashion their views of what's right and wrong. …