So let’s just cut to the chase. Does the season’s most anticipated star pairing live up to its top ticket price of $124? Yes, it indisputably does. Which isn’t to say Goodman Theatre's staging of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is a play for all palettes. It is nearly five hours long. It does not end happily. And leading up to those shocking, shattering final moments, The Iceman Cometh is relentless in its examination of dreams forever deferred and the delusions that make such limitless deferments endurable. If you prefer your tragedy softened by hope and your view of life’s jagged edges mitigated by a soft focus lens, Harry Hope’s saloon is not your hangout.
It’s that saloon, dingy, shadowy watering hole of the lower depths and favorite establishment of those who would incinerate under the stark glare of reality, that O’Neill sets his emotional epic. And it’s here that Nathan Lane turns in a career re-defining performance as reformed drunk Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. It’s also here that Brian Dennehy counters Lane’s loquaciously emotive performance as the taciturn dead-end “foolosopher” Larry Slade. Both men are at the height of their considerable dramatic powers, making this an Iceman to savor.
Directed by Robert Falls, Iceman continues a rich collaboration begun some 22 years ago when he and Dennehy collaborated on the same show, with Dennehy in the role of Hickey. Over two decades later, the Dennehy/Falls/O’Neill combination is one of proven riches. The Iceman Cometh lives up to the hype that’s surrounded it and the high expectations Dennehy and Falls have carved out on such shows as Desire Under the Elms and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It is an exhausting, harrowing epic, the unvarnished story of the American Dream soured by the endless, empty promise of never-arriving tomorrows. It is a collective portrait of lost souls who would wither and die an excruciating death were they to face the reality of their own delusions dreams.
The men and women of Harry Hope’s live in the imagined comfort of a future that is always just around the corner. They can bear consciousness only because they’ve fooled themselves into believing that tomorrow things will be better – that oh so very soon, they will take that first, pivotal step up out of the deep ruts where they live. Tomorrow they will apply for that job, go shine their shoes, get married, stop hustling, stop drinking, forge a new life. Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow – it’s both a cocoon and a tomb, a place to live when today is simply unbearable. It is also, of course, a place cushioned and secured by alcohol. Drink enough, and anything’s bearable, even the stark fact of a dead-end life that’s more dead than live.
But with Hickey’s long-awaited, exuberant appearance the denizens of Harry Hope’s are thrown from their (dis)comfort zone. The jovial, perpetual party that is Theodore Hickman has changed since everyone last saw him. That change will destroy the elaborate foundation of denial anchors the barroom and allows the drinkers to tolerate consciousness.
Falls begins the production in near total shadow, bringing the lights up with infinitesimal slowness as the conversation at Harry Hope’s establishes a scene on the bottom-most rung of society. Among the first we meet: Larry Slade, a former anarchist who has long since lost all belief in “the movement” is alive only because he lacks the courage to kill himself efficiently – rather than take action and a leap from teh fire escape, he is slowly drinking himself to death, the inexorable, passive-aggressive suicide of a man who doesn’t want to live yet is too paralyzed to take definitive action against it.
As the murk gradually lifts, we meet the other hopeless souls of Harry Hope’s. There’s Jimmy Tomorrow (James Hurt), heartbreaking in his timid insistence that tomorrow he’ll rejoin the world of the living and get his old job back. There are Boer War officers Cecil (John Reeger) and Piet (John Judd), content to snipe and bicker at each other, preferring to relive long-gone military campaigns rather than admit to a here and now that has neither purpose nor direction. There is Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo), a small-time pimp who insists he’s nothing of the kind even as his “stable” of girls turn over their nightly earnings. There is Willie Oban (John Hoogenakker), a Harvard grad whose delirium tremens are so powerful he appears to be having seizures. And there is Don Parrit (Patrick Andrews), a young man with an intensely haunted demeanor and a desperate need for Larry Slade’s companionship.
It’s Slade who operates as a kind of last-chance master of ceremonies at Harry Hope’s, filling the silences with bleak philosophizing, a preacher whose flock is comprised of fallen angels with no desire rise again. The conflict in Iceman arises when Hickey challenges, badgers and shames the barflies into facing their fears: Jimmy Tomorrow dons a suit and heads out to procure a job; Morello (Marc Grapey) and streetwalker Cora (Kate Arrington) head off to get married and fulfill their long-term pipedream of living on a farm; Willie Oban stops drinking. The results are as painful as they are short-lived. Hickey, meanwhile, turns out to be running from his own ugly reality.
As the production’s lynchpin, Lane turns in a career re-defining performance. From Guys and Dolls to The Addams Family, Lane has long been known as a creature of musicals and comedy. That all changes here. His Hickey is a complex mix of cajoler and clown, his jovial insistence overlying a tortured interior that explodes toward the end with a monologue of intense power. While we’re not in the business of predicting the future, we’d wager heavily that Lane shows up on Tony ballots this time next year.
Then there’s Dennehy, deftly capturing the depressive anger and world-weariness of a man who has long since given up. Dennehy is an almost larger-than-life presence on stage, but rather than steal focus he merges right into the dank, despairing ambiance. It’s a deceptively powerful performance, particularly in its final moments.
The ensemble Falls has gathered is an embarrassment of riches, every last character being defined with near-indelible vividness. As Don Parrit, Patrick Andrews brings a sense of twitchy fatalism to the stage and a wide-eyed, defensive neediness that’s almost palpable. Stephen Ouimette’s Harry Hope is also memorable, a man trying to maintain some sense of order in a place where the patrons have long since stopped caring. And as Jimmy Tomorrow, James Harms is quietly heartbreaking as a fellow sustained by a fragile construct of empty pipedreams.
Pipedreams are the thru-line in The Iceman Cometh, and when they’re revealed in all their gaping emptiness by Hickey.
Reviews of earlier Goodman shows can be found here (Red), here (Chinglish), here (El Nogalar) here (Mary) here (The Seagull), here (Candide), here (The True Story of the Johnstown Flood), here (The Long Red Road), here (A Christmas Carol), here,,(High Holidays), here (Stoop Stories), here (El Grito del Bronx), here (Ghostwritten), here (Magnolia), here (Hairy Ape),here (Desire Under the Elms), here (Talking Pictures), here (Shining City) here (Ruined), here (Rock 'n Roll) and here (The Good Negro).