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A CurtainUp Review
The Iceman Cometh
By Elyse Sommer
The problem is that the cast is uneconomically large and O'Neill takes his time bringing the play's two-day time frame to its predictably pitch black conclusion. O'Neill's answer to requests to streamline his often repetitious text was that any revisions would result in an even longer script. And so, given a director's vision, any production of the Iceman will run at least four hours.
Whatever the run time, and in spite of its self-indulgent repetition, it's an epic drama that any theater enthusiast will want to see at least once and O'Neill watchers will want to see whenever the opportunity arises. The last time opportunity knocked in New York was in 1999, when Kevin Spacey proved as memorable a Hickey as Jason Robards and British director Howard Davies managed to eliminate one intermission and end the visit to the Last Chance Saloon in a relatively brisk four hours.
Now we have a chance to see Nathan Lane as another Hickey for the ages at BAM in Nathan Lane.
Lane, who actually looks a lot like the roly-poly, button-nosed Hickey of O'Neill's stage directions, is the ticket selling star — but he has an all-star ensemble of gut wrenching losers to convert to his newfound illusion free sobriety.
As for director Robert Fall's vision— it's back to the full five hours with three intermissions. If he hadn't eliminated one character (the ex-cop Pat McGloin who perfected a routine for prevailing on Harry Hope to pour free drinks), his production would probably run even longer. But with the winter freeze taking over our lives there there are few outdoor activities to compete with spending time with this gut-wrenching sleepers and pipe dreamers. Besides, Iceman rode to Brooklyn on a wave of enthusiastic reviews for Mr. Fall's staging and the cast.
The Chicago staging fits the cavernous Harvey Theater beautifully. And while I can't say that I like it better than the 1999 Broadway revival, the accolades it has gotten are well earned. Given the attentive audience at the matinee I attended (no walk-outs, no snoozers), the BAM production will also go on record as one of this season's major events.
Every one of the eighteen actors are an important part of the big canvas illustrating O'Neill's dour view of the human condition. They're depressingly vivid not just when they talk of their past and illusionary futures, but when they're not saying a word. It will be a while before you'll see a stage as full of such varied displays of non-verbal acting.
Lane who's been broadening his image as more than a musical comedy star (most famously in The Producers ) with non song and dance roles (outstandingly so in The Nance is actually an inspired choice for Hickey. As already mentioned, he physically is as close to O'Neill's description as any past Hickeys. And his salesman has the musical comedy showman's bonhomie. With his pin striped suit and straw hat he could as easily be Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls. But while he doesn't sing, when he arrives almost an hour into the first act, he immediately brings pep to the claustrophic atmosphere of the heretofore dark saloon. And he delivers the goods, including that super challenging aria-like final monologue that turns his joke about catching his beloved wife Evelyn with the iceman into a devastating confession.
As it's a pleasure to see Lane join the actors who've done one of O'Neill's most memorable characters proud, it's also rewarding to see Brian Dennehy, a former Hickey, take on the role of that "philosophical bum." Unsurprisingly, he does so superbly. Another standout among standouts is John Douglas Thompson, last seen as a masterful Tamburlaine at the Theatre For a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Thompson brings his distinctive voice and attention-must-be-paid body language to the role of Joe Mott, the play's only African-American character. Of the bar's female regulars, Kate Arrington's wannabe wife is especially poignant. I could go on, but you have the idea. This is all around top-notch acting.
While the entire play takes place in Harry Hope's bar, in this production, we see different aspects of that dingy place in each act (bravo, Kevin Depinet). As lit by Natasha Katz, the first act starts out in complete darkness and only gradually reveals the mostly stupefied with drink denizens of the bar. The second act promises, but of course, doesn't deliver something more hopeful, with the focus now on a room in the bar set up for Harry Hope's sixtieth birthday party. The third and most striking scene takes us to a more spacious view of the rear of the bar the morning after. Ultimately and inevitably it's back to the grungy scene with everyone back to the hopeless state we first found them in.
I'm not sure that the pipe dream expression that flows through O'Neill's dialogue as freely as the whiskey consumed by his characters is an intentional allusion to the pipe oursmoked by opium addicts. But for sure, if you could get a dollar refund for every time it's used, your ticket might well be a bargain.
For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to other of his plays reviewed at Curtainup, see our backgrounder on him in our Playwrights Album