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.
O’Neill’s title, an allusion to Jesus, derives from the biblical phrase (Matthew 25:6), “The bridegroom cometh.” The iceman features in a gag the barflies love to hear Hickey tell about finding his wife in bed with the iceman, a comic image that ultimately turns in on itself to represent death. The play touches on pre-World War I racial attitudes, as represented by Joe Mott (John Douglas Thompson), a black gambler, and the Boer War, personified by a former correspondent, nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow (James Harms), and a friendly rivalry between Piet Wetjoen (John Judd), a one-time Boer commando, and Cecil Lewis (John Reeger), a British infantry officer. Radical politics are represented by former anarchist editor Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkoff), Larry Slade, and young Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), who has turned in his anarchist mother to the police. There are others, of course, too many to mention, and O’Neill gives each his or her moment in the dying light, often with one or more dramatic arias, a feature highlighted by Falls’s operatic vision of the play.
At the start, these depressives are waiting for Hickey, the boozing glad-hander, to arrive and help sustain their fantasies; Hickey, however, is a new man, off the sauce, and determined to get the shocked derelicts to abandon the bottle, give up their delusions, and unblinkingly face the truth about themselves. The play eventually displays the gloomy results of his message, and the reason for Hickey’s conversion.
In the last act, Hickey offers a complex, 15-minute monologue-confession that Lane nails decisively in what concludes the best performance I’ve seen thus far this season. Lane’s innate comic spirit, combined with his expressive face—adorned by a thick, black mustache—and aggressive friendliness, only deepen his ability to demonstrate self-loathing disenchantment. He’s so clear, vibrant, honest, and three-dimensional that weaknesses in a small number of actors in the fine ensemble surrounding him become that much more apparent. The work of Dennehy, Oimette, Thompson, and Wilkof, however, is exceptional.
Much of Falls’s nuanced direction is forced to rely on subtle shifts in posture and groupings to create visual interest out of characters who, much of the time, do little more than sit, slouch, or otherwise arrange themselves at, on, or around tables. He’s aided impressively by the sets of Kevin Depinet (inspired by a set design by John Conklin), in which soaring, gray-toned rooms provide austere, minimalist backgrounds for the richly atmospheric, chiaroscuro lighting of Natasha Katz. Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes are redolent of the year in which the action transpires.
The Iceman Cometh is a somber, introspective, cynical, and deeply painful play, albeit highlighted by flashes of (gallows) humor. For an American play written in 1939 (circumstances prevented an earlier production), its language is remarkably frank, its commentary on politics and race surprisingly pungent, and its characters absorbing. Yes, it’s way too long, but, on second thought, perhaps it nonetheless deserves the designation of greatness.
The Iceman Cometh
Brooklyn Academy of Music
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
Through March 15
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).