Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Words, Words, Words: Arthur Miller's Ride Down Mt. Morgan & Russell Davis' Song of Grendelyn Open in New Jersey
Two overlong plays in which points are reiterated over and over again are now in production in New Jersey. One is quite interesting and well worth our attention, and the other is sadly the most pretentious and empty play that I have yet reviewed here.
Lyman Felt (Al Mohrmann), a very successful and wealthy insurance entrepreneur and executive, lies in serious condition in an upstate Elmira, New York hospital after crashing his car one night during a storm on an icy mountain road. As a result of the crash, Theodora (Gloria Falzer), his wife of more than 35 years, and their married daughter Bessie (Valerie Stack Dodge) have been summoned from their Manhattan Upper East Side homes to the hospital. This spells big trouble for Lyman.
For the past nine years, Lyman has also been married to Leah (Lisa Ann Goldsmith), the owner of a small Elmira insurance agency. Leah had become pregnant as a result of their affair, and Lyman married her so as not to lose her and to dissuade her from aborting their son.
Theodora has never known of the existence of Leah and her son, and Leah has accepted Lyman's false claim that he and Theo were divorced. As Lyman had early on bought an interest in and expanded Leah's business (to account for spending almost half of his time in Elmira), the level of implausibility is off the board.
The balance of the play, which Miller veterans will not be surprised to learn largely occurs in Lyman's mind, is an adroit mixture of unfolding events, the past, and fevered fantasies incorporating elements of both. There are scenes which combine the various elements, and, at times (particularly near the end), during which we are not quite sure what is reality and what is imagined.
There is enough ambiguity in the work to support multiple interpretations, including the possibility that it is in totality a modernist screwball comedy. It can also be viewed as an attack on the excess behavior which great success enables, with a few added darts hurled at tabloid media.
Similiarly to Miller's alter ego, Quentin in After the Fall, Lyman offers justification for his hurtful, self-centered behavior. However, unlike Quentin, Lyman has neither guilt nor moral qualms about his actions. Instead, he fully espouses the idea that it is proper for him to do whatever suits his happiness. He finds this especially true because he has had the success to give both Theo and Leah, and the children, lifestyles that only real money can buy. There are few arguments presented to contradict him. The only ones that Miller allows relate to the potential of emotional harm to his children. In fact, Theo, who would not accommodate her schedule to accompany Lyman upstate nine years earlier, and Leah, who thought nothing of seducing a married man and taking him from his wife and daughter, appear to be the victimizers to Miller as well as to Lyman. The Miller/Lyman argument seems to make logical sense. However, it omits the reality of the human psyche.
This is the Achilles heel of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. It feels as if Miller, a leading conscience of the American theatre, is flipping the bird at us, announcing that he has lived his life as it suited him and that he is without any feelings of guilt. No explanation necessary. However, the moralist within cannot truly accept moral relativism and the irrelevance of guilt. Thus, I think that the reason Miller repeats the same arguments more than twenty times over is that, at some level, he is trying to convince himself of them.
In any event, Miller is an accomplished wordsmith and the audience is treated to witty and brain-teasing dialogue throughout. Some quotes from Lyman's provocative statements will suffice to illustrate:
"gods are never guilty that's why they are gods"
"I don't sacrifice one day to things I don't believe in, including monogamy ... why do we think monogamy is a higher form of life?"
"my generation got married to show its maturity; yours stays single for the same reason"
Under Lenny Bart's crisp and clear direction, the play moves along at a pretty good clip despite its discursiveness. His light touch serves it well. Al Mohrmann's Lyman Felt is smoothly rendered exactly as he is written. Mohrmann steadily grows stronger in his self justification and confidence as his strength returns after the accident. Ultimately, he exudes the attitude that he is Mr. Nice Guy victim and everybody's dumping on poor little him. For Mohrmann to give even subtle hints of seeing things any other way would violate the text.
Gloria Falzer nicely fleshes out the textural Theo, but the part itself is not consistently written. Given her established coldness, Theo is overly emotional about Lyman and there is nothing in her character to explain her ultimate concern for Leah and her son.
Lisa Ann Goldsmith is an appropriately business-like, coolly self-protective Leah. Valerie Stack Dodge (Bessie), Bill Joachim as Lyman and Theo's compassionate friend and lawyer, and Andrea Scott as a not always no-nonsense nurse smoothly and effectively round out the featured cast.
Although The Ride Down Mt. Morgan is not nearly in the same class as Arthur Miller's great social masterpieces, it is a pleasure to encounter Arthur Miller so lucid, feisty and humorous so late in his career.
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan will continue performances through April 24, 2005 (Fri. & Sat. @ 8 P.M.; Sun. @ 3 P.M.) at the 12 Miles West Center for the Arts, 562 Bloomfield Avenue, Bloomfield, New Jersey, 07003. Box Office: 973-259-9187; Online: www.12mileswest.org
The Ride Down Mt. Morgan by Arthur Miller; directed by Lenny Bart
Hannah, an author of children's books, is a young widow who had left her eleven-year-old daughter Siggy home alone. Hannah has gone off somewhere for a book reading and signing. Back home, Hannah's house has been invaded by her childhood friend Melinda, a successful rock singer, who has detached herself from her band and entourage to get some sleep before performing downtown.
Melinda is trying to sleep in Hannah's bed. Siggy won't leave her alone as she wants Melinda to go to the guestroom "where she belongs." Melinda refuses. However, to be allowed to sleep in Hannah's bed, Melinda will both slap and abuse the child by pulling her ear and physically forcing her to her knees to pray. Melinda will verbally threaten her with serious unspecified harm, warning the child that she, Melinda, truly has a devil inside her. However, Siggy is a wise preternatural child and she can sense the good girl inside Melinda.
Siggy tells Melinda that she knows that inside her is a good person trying to get out. Still we must endure more scenes of child abuse. It seems that Siggy's late father Phillip was a musician and teacher. He was mentor and lover to both Hannah and Melinda. He then gave up substance abuse and became a born again Christian, only to fall off that wagon. Now Melinda must tell Siggy how Phillip died. She has to tell Siggy that her father left her and Hannah to go to Melinda. When Melinda rejected him, Phillip committed suicide by jumping in front of her tour bus, "the monster's bus."
Melinda's big song is entitled The Song of Grendelyn. In this song, she spews out her hatred of the world, costumed as a female equivilant of the swamp monster Grendel, descendant of Cain, in Beowulf. However, Siggy wants to call Melinda by the name Gwendelyn, for the good person that Siggy knows is inside her.
It is eventually revealed that Melinda was abused by her minister father when she was a child. After being abused, she would come and find peace and comfort by sleeping in Hannah's bed. Ultimately through Siggy's love and understanding, the monster recedes and the good Gwendelyn emerges from inside the monster.
It is difficult to explain just how dull and boring all of this is. Each of the two acts opens with 15 minute monologues by Hannah at her book signing. By the time of the second monologue, during which she rambles on incoherently about her life, Hannah would have long lost her entire audience. There are pages and pages of meaningless pretentious dialogue which sound like the sort of ramblings which would drive anyone out from a poetry jam.
And when Hannah gets home, just how does she respond to Melinda's abuse of Siggy? Well, she embraces the abuser and keeps pushing Siggy back into her clutches.
Every detail of the story is repeated ad nausium. It is anyone's guess as to how many times over how long a period Siggy tells Melinda about the good girl trying to get out of her, only to have Melinda respond by insisting that she is a monster to her core.
The play's shortcomings are exacerbated by the slow pace of the direction by Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski. There will surely be some who share the high praise that Pietrowski has for playwright Russell Davis as a unique voice in the American theatre. This view may have prevented Pietrowski from meticulously working with Davis to remove any of a massive number of pages of enervating, repetitious and pretentious dialogue. You may agree with Pietrowski if dialogue that posits that the black holes that "we" search for in the heavens are actually inside us, and thus, when "we" sense an expanding universe it is actually we who are shrinking, sounds enthralling to you. Still, the opening night audience, which normally is especially supportive, to a person, sat motionless in stupefied silence at the end of the first act.
Carol Todd is appropriately fierce as the one-note Melinda. Dana Benningfeld makes no particular impression in the thankless and uninteresting role of Hannah. The role of Siggy is not so much played as intoned in a flat, affectless, lispy, sometimes unintelligible and faltering series of line readings by a young lady who appears to be age appropriate. Her casting is as cruel to the youngster as it is to the audience and should never have occurred in a professional theater.
By the way, if Siggy is so preternaturally wise and imbued with such a loving soul, why didn't she just let Melinda sleep wherever the hell she wanted to?
The Song of Grendelyn continues performances through April 24, 2005 (Thurs.- call for times; & Fri., Sat. & Sun. at 8 P.M.) at Playwright's Theatre , 33 Green Village Road, P.O. Box 1295, Madison, NJ 07940; Box Office: 973-514-1787 ext. 30; e-mail: www.ptnj.org/.
The Song of Grendelyn by Russell Davis; directed by John Pietrowski