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The Iceman Cometh

Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane                                      photos by Richard Termine

                                          By Eric Grunin

The magnificent production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh now at BAM is a must-see for any lover of the play, the playwright, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, or great acting in general. I have never in my life seen so many fine actors simultaneously manifesting their art in such complete unison. The play itself raises deep questions about why we cling to our illusions, and if the answers aren't as coherent as the questions, well, some significant questions must be asked in spite of having no definitive answer, just as some significant plays can have no definitive production. This is one of those.

O'Neill takes us back to 1912. We're in Harry Hope's saloon and rooming-house, a "cheap ginmill of the five-cent whiskey, last-resort variety situated on the downtown West Side of New York." (In modern terms: an SRO over a bar.) Because it's technically a hotel, the saloon keeps its back room open round the clock, and indeed the play opens, before dawn, on a room full of drunks asleep at their tables. This morning the room is especially full, for the assembled alcoholics are awaiting their old pal Hickey, a successful traveling salesman who drops by a couple of times a year to subsidize a general week-long bender.

These are men and women who have lost everything but a residuum of illusions, and as the dozen-plus awaken we learn what those illusions are. Mostly they are variations on "I can walk away from this and get my old life back," but there are some interesting exceptions. Chuck, the day bartender (Marc Grapey), and Cora, his streetwalker girlfriend (Kate Arrington), swear that they're planning on marriage and a house in the suburbs. Proprietor Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette) hasn't left the house since his wife died two decades back. Then there's Margie and Pearl (Lee Stark and Tara Sissom), hookers "managed" by night bartender Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo). Their concern is semantic: calling them "tarts" is fine, but calling them "whores," or Rocky a "pimp," brings forth their wrath.

Salvatore Inzerillo, James Harms, Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.

So Hickey (Nathan Lane) shows up, but this time it all goes wrong. He's still happy to throw the big party (that's Act 2), but politely declines drink, and keeps drifting into salesmanship, not selling hardware but...well, it's not quite clear. The point he harps on, to their endless consternation, is that tomorrow they must actually go and do all those things they keep swearing by and putting off: get that job back, get married, take that walk around the block. He pushes them through the night, publicly and privately, and by morning they are each on the verge of action. What happens next (which I will not spoil) is Act 3, and the repercussions of their decisions are the stuff of Act 4.

There is a secondary plot running parallel to this one. Lapsed Anarcho-Syndicalist Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy) has to deal with new arrival Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews). Parritt is young, and his mother is an old flame of Slade's, one for whom Slade still carries a torch. We see right away that Parritt is paranoid and half-crazed with guilt, though it takes a while to find out over what; eventually we realize he's come to Slade for absolution or judgment.

Slade is the least delusional of the bunch. He's clearly intended to carry the weight of audience identification, and thus ultimately of the play itself. Dennehy manages it with no apparent effort, the kind of performance where you forget that any 'acting' is going on at all, it's just this guy telling this story. He grumbles and rages and never exaggerates his own importance, keeping our attention without demanding it, not in the least likable but earning our compassion anyway.

Nathan Lane does brilliantly with an essentially impossible part. It's not just that it's physically taxing, it's even more that Hickey has so many contradictory aspects that there is no one idea of the character that can contain them all. But what Lane brings to the part that others have not is his voice, a voice that can be insinuating and cajoling and yet believably friendly and seemingly without guile. This assured vocalism also keeps the long speeches from flatlining--the heart of Act 4 is a thirty-five minute monologue, but Lane never faltered at keeping it aloft.

The directorial vision of Robert Falls must be given special prominence here. One thing that's often missed in O'Neill is the legacy of Expressionism. Here it's visible in the almost ritualistic way that characters repeat themselves and talk past each other, sometimes seeming to interrupt irrelevantly and almost at random. Falls judges all this perfectly, and has communicated O'Neill's peculiar music to his ensemble. For example, there is a moment where the denizens of the backroom begin to pound their glasses on their tables in protest at something Hickey has said. It might have been merely an angry clamor, here it sounds like an approaching army of the dead.

The only exception is the part of Parritt, particularly in Act 4. His panicky obsession with receiving punishment comes off as pestering and abrasive rather than serious and implacable. Perhaps the characterization lacks the circumspection of the true paranoid?

The lighting (by Natasha Katz) is smartly done, as changes in Act 1 that seem a bit broad turn out to have a huge payoff in Act 2. The scenic design (Kevin Depinet), while arguably too Spartan, uses forced perspective and a blank white space (representing "outside") to great effect in Act 3.

There's no way to do justice in a short space to the many superlative performances in the supporting cast, but I will single out two, starting with John Douglas Thompson. The part of Joe Mott, who used to run a Negro gambling joint but whose luck ran out some time ago, is neither large nor central. Yet by finding the character's truth, Thompson's big moment in Act 3 was unexpectedly shocking in the best possible way: it felt as if the scene were written yesterday. I've admired but not loved his work in the title roles of Macbeth and Tamburlaine, and for me this has revealed a whole new side of Thompson's talent.

Kate Arrington's Cora was another case of a minor character becoming unexpectedly interesting. I'd never thought about it much, but Cora's fantasy isn't like the others: they dream of getting employment, which they resist because it requires giving up whiskey, while she dreams of being respectable, which she resists because it requires giving up her independence. Arrington, whom I've never seen before, manages to get this across with just a few well-chosen gestures.

It must be said that the play has serious flaws, starting with its length--the text alone runs well over four hours (there are three intermissions). Perhaps O'Neill wants to slow down our metabolism to match his limbo of lost souls, but even so the exposition-heavy first act has its dead spots. (There are two "full length" plays on Broadway right now that are shorter than this one ninety-minute act.)

The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O’Neill
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Through March 15, 2015
Tickets at 718-636-4100, or at
Running Time: five hours, three intermissions