LONDON — '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 d ud. 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 d eeper 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. Neither course, he argues, leads to ultimate fulfillment.
Stimulating stuff. A major problem, though, is that the playwright's dramatic structure lacks interesting twists and turns. While the central issue eventually becomes compelling enough, the characters, frankly, never do.
London theatergoers do hunger for meaty fare, which is why the promise of a Miller play - old or new - can always fill the seats here. A British equivalent, in crowd-pulling terms, is David Hare. His newest work, "Murmuring Judges, is currently in repertory at the National Theatre and directed by its artistic chief, Richard Eyre.
The play takes a particularly timely critical look at the British legal system, beginning with the Victorian-inspired prisons, moving on to the bewigged judiciary, then quickly shifting over to the beleaguered bobbies. The three sectors are constantly interwoven as the play progresses. While parts may be a touch too Britain-specific for outsiders to appreciate, much of the thrust of the criticism - judicial prejudice, pervasive prison corruption, and police who on occasion break the rules because it's to o bothersome to follow them - will surely ring bells for anyone, whatever his nationality.
Although there is little dramatic tension in "Murmuring Judges" (the title refers to an ancient Scottish law prohibiting criticism of the judiciary), the play's intelligent wit and social comment, plus some very good acting and staging make it eminently worthwhile. Stars and lesser lights
A good sign of the continuing robustness of the London stage is that shows such as "Murmuring Judges" can be a hit without any notable actors' names above the title.
Yet the presence of a few internationally known faces is also a positive indicator of a thriving theaterland. And, indeed, the West End firmament has had a healthy sprinkling of stars this season - Alan Alda in "Our Town," Vanessa Redgrave in "When She Danced," and David McCallum in the musical (yes, he can sing) "The Hunting of the Snark," to cite a few. The best of the bunch for my money has been Alda in "Our Town," despite the fact that the role of narrator hardly stretched his talents. In overall ter ms, though, the show proved to be a satisfying revival. Having just finished its run here, New York theatergoers will be able to catch it later this spring.
But the commercially shrewd casting of Derek Jacobi and Robert Lindsay (who took Broadway by storm in "Me and My Girl"), in Jean Anouilh's "Becket" at the Haymarket Theatre Royal is one of the current season's most noteworthy box-office bonanzas.
The show requires a pair of particularly charismatic actors to compete with the Richard Burton-Peter O'Toole cinematic incarnation of this tongue-in-cheekily devised version of the relationship between King Henry II and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And Mr. Jacobi, who is probably Britain's most engaging, versatile stage thespian right now, does not disappoint. His Becket is warm, funny, and full of life. Mr. Lindsay, on the other hand, is surprisingly a bit flat by comparison. As talented
as he is, Jacobi's theatrical brilliance does often have a tendency to dim those around him. Still, as a duo they are admirably watchable, though the jokiness of the show itself won't please purists. Other West End features
Over at the Barbican Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company has its big seasonal offering in the form of a highly atmospheric rendering of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Adapted by David Edgar from the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, its emphasis is more psychological - on the putative dual nature of man - than scary. For the stage this is a mistake. The tale is basically a horror story awash with Victorian murkiness. And the clever legerdemain when either of the two actors, who superbly play the title roles, mysteriously transmogrifies into the other, is probably the most exciting theatrical effect in the West End at the moment.
As for new musicals there is little to shout about, apart from one curious caveat: London currently has two shows called "The Phantom of the Opera." Not surprisingly, this is causing great confusion among the ill-informed. The one at Her Majesty's Theatre is the Andrew Lloyd Webber creation that transferred to Broadway and has received a number of stage awards, while the newly mounted production, at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and billed as the "original" version, is devised by unknown dramatist Ken Hill. H e wrote and premiered his "Phantom" several years before Lloyd Webber's and was, in fact, approached by the famed music man to join forces. Mr. Hill declined and has been touring around provincial theaters both in Britain and the United States ever since. Now, at last, it has reached the big time.
So which version is better? If small-scale operatta, with a perfectly intelligible storyline and a heavy touch of camp is your predilection, then Hill's is the one to go for. But it has to be said that Lloyd Webber's glitzy Gothic extravaganza beats it in every other way.