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A CurtainUp Review
The Iceman Cometh
By Elyse Sommer
Like the Williams and Miller plays, (both still playing and within easy walking distance of the Brooks Atkinson), the revival of O'Neill's melancholy play endures and mesmerizes because of the vision of its director, with a powerful assist from its actors. The director in this case is Howard Davies, the associate director of London's Almeida and Royal National Theatre where this revival first ran. Mr. Davies has reached beneath the shattering group portrait of wrecked lives to show us the camaraderie of the barflies O'Neill knew first-hand and described as "the best friends I ever had." (It bears noting that these friends and the play's essential plot first surfaced in the June 1917 issue of the magazine Seven Arts -- twenty-two years before O'Neill wrote the play and and thirty years before its Broadway premiere). While still a tragedy, Iceman is as entertaining as it is devastating. All four hour and fifteen minutes of it are packed with rich characterizations and humor.
The setting echoes the direction. The Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village where the play had its first revival in 1956 was a tiny place. Its long narrow stage had neither walls or roof and was flanked on either side by a few rows of seats at either side. The audience was practically in Hope's bar and the actors near enough to touch. Their despair was overwhelmingly close. Bob Crowley's' barroom is a much more capacious space, some two stories high, brick walled but not quite so dingy and grim. This gives Mr. Davies a chance to put humorous reparte and conviviality convincingly side-by-side with some of his gut wrenching group images of people in various poses of living death -- miniature portraiture becomes a wall-to-wall human canvas. It also makes it possible to find a semblance of hope in the tragic ending. The bar flies are still just barely fluttering instead of flying but they have survived Hickey the missionary of abandoned hope. Davies has managed to turn O'Neill's hopelessness into as much of a happy ending as fidelity to the play permits. No mean feat!
The nineteen actors fit themselves perfectly to the director's vision. During the moments when they are silent figures in the overall canvas, each assumes the perfect pose and expression when a silent figure in the overall canvas. The non-spoken acting is mind boggling in its impact. Everyone is wonderfully differentiated.
Kevin Spacey as the figurative star but more than anything of a piece with the ensemble, has cast off the shadow of Jason Robards' definitive performance in 1956 (and again in 1976). His Hickey has a glib, contemporary charm, dressed circa 1912, but with the air of the fast talking telemarketing pitchman of our times. He delivers his several long difficult monologues (one runs close to half an hour) with conversational ease, knowing just when to switch from cool monotone to eyeball-to-eyeball emotional warmth. He gets us to relive with him the scenes from a marriage to a woman who by repeatedly forgiving his his drinking and unfaithfulness turned him into a missionary for a life free of delusionary hope. When he declares "There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and the pity you can take! You have to begin blaming someone else, too" he commands your sympathy even as he repels.
The play's strength as an ensemble rather than a star vehicle (even though Hickey did make Jason Roberts a star) is evident in the first seventy minutes. It's a period of waiting for Hickey to show up to celebrate Harry Hope's sixtieth birthday. It's also a time for each of the bedraggled and besotted losers who h"it the pipe of the future" in Harry's gin mill /flophouse to establish the individuality and humanity beneath the generally applicable tags of derelicts and losers . Much of the humor is provided by Harry's brother-in-law Ed Mosher (Jeff Weiss) who declares "If I had any nerves, I'd have a nervous breakdown" and with ex-cop Pat McGloin (Richard Riehle) has perfected a routine for prevailing on Harry to pour free drinks.
By the time each character reveals his dream of a yesterday that self-destructed and a tomorrow that will never come, we begin to understand the cumulative effect of what at first seems repetitive and heavy-handed. It is this leitmotif of the pipe dream that is the thread that links them to life and each other.
You know that the metaphorically named Jimmy Tomorrow (Paul Giamatti) and Harry Hope (James Hazeldine) won't live up to their names. You know that Willie Oban, the Harvard trained lawyer who "Discovered the loophole of whiskey" to escaped his father's jurisdiction will never be able to return to the life he abandoned. The three colorful prostitutes -- Cora (Katie Finneran), Margie (Catherine Kellner) and Pearl (Dina Spybey) -- with shrill-voices marvelously out of synch with their Gibson Girl prettiness insist they are not really prostitutes, as bartender Rocky (Tony Danza) insists he's not their pimp.
The most open-eyed member of this subterranean club is Larry Slade (Tim Piggott-Smith). An ex-anarchist who periodically declares his wish for the end of his miserable life, he sneers constantly at the pipe dreamers but with his sympathy for them clearly evident. In the end he too comes under the knife-edge of Hickey's relentless and invidious assault on delusion. Don Parritt (Robert Sean Leonard) who like Hickey comes to the saloon to expiate a guilty secret.
All the actors, including those not mentioned above, are excellent. Emerson, Pigott-Smith and Giamatti are perfection!
By the time Hickey finally enters, or rather explodes, on to the stage we know them all, and through them, that the "hardware drummer" is a hail-fellow-well-met spender ever prepared with a joke about the iceman of the title. And for all the laughs, the actors have managed to put us on guard about what will happen when the birthday party is ready to get under way.
Some phrase detectives have suggested that the expression pipe dreams alludes to the dreams and schemes which may inspire an opium addict after he has smoked a pipeful of the drug. Whatever the origin, those two words flow as freely as the whiskey in Harry Hope's bar and if you could collect a dollar refund for each one you can recall at the end of the four hours you would appreciably reduce the $100 top ticket price.
The play originally had three intermissions and ran five hours, with any attempts to cut it down met by O'Neill's counter threat to make it longer. It now clocks in at four hours and fifteen minutes and two intermissions from the time the first down and outers slouch and shuffle into Harry's bar to Larry Slade's final cry of "I'll be the weak fool looking with pity at two sides of everything till the day I die!" Those hours pass with remarkable speed. Don't be surprised if you find yourself talking about the play and stretching your evening past the full five hours of the original. I hope there are some plays being written as I post this review which will have the Iceman's staying power to inspire new interpretations a half century or more later.
Review of other plays mentioned: Death of A Salesman and Second Thoughts Review
Not About Nightingales
From our Playwright's album -- An Overview of Eugene O'Neill's Career An Overview of Eugene O'Neill's Career