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A CurtainUp London Collage Review

The Iceman Cometh
Written in 1939, but not performed until 1946, The Iceman Cometh is a pivotal work of 20th-century drama. Its various and sundry denizens at Harry Hope's dilapidated bar in downtown New York in 1912, are barely able to muster a flutter. Only the arrival of Hickey, a travelling salesman and sudden, messianic convert to truth-telling, are they forced to act out their drunken pipe dreams. The predictably disastrous still make for a powerful evening in the theater, and with Kevin Spacey as a riveting Hickey, a rare treat -- expertly directed by Howard Davies with a visually expanding design by Bob Crowley that features a long, curved bar, tacky frosted mirrors, flophouse beds suspended from the wall and faint projections of the outside world.

The limited run (6/19/98-8/01/98), star vehicle arrived at The Old Vic Theater (Waterloo Road, London, SE1 8NB.,Near the Waterloo station) to great acclaim. Since, Spacey's schedule permitting, the revival is sure to splash down on Broadway next season, we post a collage of opinion from London's key critics below:

Film stars sometimes shrink on stage. But Kevin Spacey, who plays Hickey in the Almeida's four-hour-plus revival of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, not only brings to the role a long theatrical pedigree but a spellbinding technical assurance . . . The play's currency is reinforced by Spacey's interpretation of Hickey as a born-again zealot. He reminds us, crucially, that Hickey is not only a salesman but also the son of an Indiana preacher . . . And Howard Davies, who directed the 1976 Aldwych production, is sensitive both to O'Neill's tragi-comedy and his fundamental argument: that humankind cannot bear very much reality and that the zeal of the salvationist is, more often than not, an echo of private disturbance.
-- Michael Billington, The Guardian.

For a celebrated ensemble piece that requires a cast of 19 actors, Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh certainly knows how to behave like a star vehicle. . . . Kevin Spacey is enormously watchable as Hickey. All controlling, calculating bonhomie, his fast-talking salesman has more than a touch of the modern games show host about him. He's so sincere-sounding he's genuinely managed to fool himself and as he passes amongst the barflies, kneeling down to them or massaging their shoulders, there's a hollowness and a pseudo-holiness in the contact that suggests this Hickey could give any Oprah-clone a run for his money. . .. He's an object lesson in mankind's inability to bear very much reality or unconditional love
-- Paul Taylor, Independent.

. . .O'Neill's journey through the lower depths is not one to be taken swiftly: the Almeida's production comes out at more than four hours, and the biggest laugh of the evening came when one character growled at another: "Get on with it, you long-winded bore." But sticking with it pays dividends, and one of Howard Davies's great skills is to keep this vast liner of a play afloat. . .There are places where Davies's production flags and the play's mysterious power loses out to its unwieldy length and repetitive text, but on the whole this is a skillfully crafted staging that allows the play's icy hand to grip you. O'Neill makes you look into the darkness even as he celebrates the fictions that keep it at bay, and this splendid production keeps you pinned to the edge. --Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times.

. . .Kevin Spacey is mesmeric as Hickey, the supersalesman who saunters into a shabby Bowery saloon... his sample-case packed with promises of happiness. . .Spacey gives you not only the pain of guilt but something more unusual and important. Towards the end there is a long, long silence, not demanded by O'Neill's always garrulous stage-directions. Spacey's Hickey looks at his flock and takes pity on them. He allows them to retreat again into their protective life-lies and, from there, into an uproariously coarse drinking spree. It is a touching moment and a terrible one, for it sums up what the 58-year-old dramatist had come to feel about our species by 1946, when the Iceman appeared. Can we tolerate truth? No. Evasion is our lot. --Benedict Nightingale, The London Times.

. . . Spacey achieves an astonishing depth of self-flagellating emotion, and the single line when his own comforting pipe dream finally cracks is breathtaking in its intensity. . . It is an unforgettable night which confirms Howard Davies as a director with an extraordinary gift for combining the intimate and the epic, the funny and the piercingly sad. --Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph.

Page © Elyse Sommer, June 1998

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