Not-Right Triangles

As far as that goes, Frayn's emphasis on the terror of nuclear destruction itself seems oddly out of date, valid as it is for the characters. Chances of nuclear war have been considerably reduced; what's liable to destroy us all now are peaceful places like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Frayn says nothing about this; for him "nuclear" equals "bomb," much as Margrethe, the fulcrum of his mechanism, equals "spouse." Inventive, wide-ranging, compassionate, his script also has a hemmed-in quality that seems to stem less from the laws of the dramaturgic universe than from the author's reluctance to delve. A nuclear explosion is represented onstage at one point, but this quasi-nuclear family radiates little emotional connection to our own lives. Blakemore's cast is generous at filling in the blanks, but even actors as good as Philip Bosco and Blair Brown can make the Bohrs no more than a pair of complementary particles. It's left to Michael Cumpsty's Heisenberg to provide the emotional meltdown. Luckily, he's apt for the task; an actor whose height, strong features, and big voice have often allowed him to speedboat across the surface of his roles, Cumpsty has rarely, since La Bête, found a character's life as richly and powerfully as he does here. In Cumpsty's performance, you see the man fully, both as rational point and emotional wave.

The rational points have been greatly enhanced in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, last year's isosceles triangle, now moved north from the Public Theater. Downtown, the base of the triangle—its hero, Lyman Felt (Patrick Stewart)—had all the justifications and most of the good lines. Miller's thorough and skillful rewriting has put the shape back in balance by giving better-focused responses to the two women Lyman's married, by each of whom he has a child. David Esbjornson's production, expanding as if with relief onto the larger stage, has also helped matters with some judicious recasting, notably the arrival of Katy Selverstone, pert, precise, and unforcedly appealing as the second wife. She's no wife at all, of course, since Lyman has never divorced his first wife (still the redoubtable Francis Conroy).

The joy of this rebalancing act is that it takes the onus of Lyman's narcissistic selfishness off the playwright: Instead of indulging one idea, he's testing it against another, turning the drama from an old man's erotic fantasy into a debate about pleasure and responsibility. The more Lyman goes on about experiencing passion and seizing the moment in a constantly changing world, the more angrily outspoken the women get, showing us the damage pleasure leaves behind when you dive into it without consideration for others. Equally important and necessary, the two ideas are irreconcilable; that's drama. At the end, Lyman, who's had a remarkable life, is still relishing the preposterous glory of the world, but he's turned his children, the grown daughter we see and the eight-year-old son we hear about, into neurotic, damaged messes. And there's surely something wrong with your pleasure if it leaves the world that much worse than you found it.

Hospital corner: Selverstone, Stewart, and Conroy in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
photo: Joan Marcus
Hospital corner: Selverstone, Stewart, and Conroy in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

Details

Copenhagen
By Michael Frayn
Royale Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
By Arthur Miller
Ambassador Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street 212-239-6200

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Everything in this equation depends on our liking Lyman too much to spot him as a phony right off, and Stewart, who handled the role with delightful flair Off-Broadway, has deepened his work for the new version. An actor whose natural instinct is apparently to give every role a downward pull—he was the gloomiest Prospero ever—he's let that quality seep into his sly, sunshiny Lyman. The bright smiles hover on his face for an instant before their corners drop down; the voice's cheery pitch seems to have somber cello underscoring. The disquieting effect is just right: Part of Lyman knows he shouldn't be this happy, and part of us doesn't want him to be, but we can't help enjoying the schmuck's self-satisfaction anyway. Unlike Loman, Lyman is well liked. Conroy's splendid performance has reshaped itself for the larger space without losing any of its Downtown vibrancy.

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