by Samuel L. Leiter
There’s no question that Eugene O’Neill’s barroom drama about the hopelessness of hope, The Iceman Cometh, is a superlative contribution from one of America’s three top serious dramatists, worthy of respect as a modern classic. For me, it falls just shy of true greatness because of its inordinate length, something critics have carped about since its original Broadway production in 1946. Director Robert Falls’s widely lauded revival, brought intact from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre to BAM’s Harvey Theatre, runs four hours and forty-five minutes, nearly as long as it takes to fly from Los Angeles to New York. For all its superb dramatic qualities, its duration makes one conscious of its overly repetitive thematic points, its wordiness, and its excess of self-pitying characters.
Still, the full house when I attended remained riveted throughout, and, after four acts with three 15-minute intermissions, rose like Hokusai’s wave to splash the 18-member ensemble with loving applause and shouted admiration. Foremost of the recipients was Nathan Lane, normally so brilliant in comedic roles, demonstrating the remarkable acuity of his tragic chops in the role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, the traveling salesman who, after a life-changing experience, abandons his optimistic pipe dreaming and seeks to smash those that sustain a barroom packed with self-deluded drunks. Brian Dennehy, who played Hickey in Fall’s 1990 Goodman Theatre production, now portrays, with glowering power, the play’s second lead, Larry Slade, once a fiery syndicalist-anarchist but now a wreck depending on pipe dreams to get him through the night.
The Iceman Cometh, loosely based on O’Neill’s own experiences, has been called an American The Lower Depths because of its incisive picture of the boozers, pimps, tarts (a term they prefer to “whores”), anarchists, gamblers, con men, war vets, and dreamers frequenting Harry Hope’s Bowery bar and flophouse. These bums do little more than drink and sleep at Harry’s, surviving on glorified memories and romantic illusions of one day being able to restore their broken lives.