"The Iceman Cometh"
Brooklyn Academy of Music
It starts in total darkness then, gradually, lights reveal the seedy denizens who live and drink in proprietor Harry Hope’s hopeless bar and flop house. On its journey from Purgatory to Hell to some variation of Heaven, director Robert Falls’s Goodman Theater version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at BAM makes for a spellbinding, unforgettable evening, filled with ideas about capitalism, anarchism, families, illusions, religion and the crimes we commit against not only others but ourselves.
O’Neill, forever indebted to Greek tragedy, gives us an evening of classic pity and terror, laced with wry humor. By the end of the drama’s nearly five-hour length, O’Neill’s whores, pimps and bums are stripped bare, with theatergoers forced to examine their own drawbacks, their promises and defeats, their regrets, prejudices and relationships.
Written in 1939, set in 1912 (the year O’Neill attempted suicide) but not performed until 1946, O’Neill’s masterful look at the pipe dreams we often live by concerns boozy failures in a downtown New York saloon. Living lives of illusions, they await the arrival of Hickey, a salesman as glad-handing as another stage drummer, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman.
Hickey is always good for a laugh, telling jokes and “waving a big bankroll.” But, on this visit, he arrives with a message: face the truth, kill your pipe dreams. A would-be savior, Hickey brings anguish even to Harry Hope’s Last Supper-like birthday party. Promising peace and happiness, he’s greeted with suspicion by characters who fear having their illusions nullified.
Among the dreamers is the sardonic Larry Slade, a failed anarchist, longing for death, living “in the grandstand of philosophical detachment.” He’s the only one not taken in by Hickey’s plans.
The others try to regain their old lives, as Hickey suggests, but at their peril. Eventually finding out what Hickey’s life has truly become both frees them and, paradoxically, forces them back into liquor-filled, contented isolation.
Until that epiphany, Hickey plays on their weaknesses. Among his disciples are two Boer war veterans, one British, one South African, a failed lawyer, a busted war correspondent named Jimmy Tomorrow, a graft-taking policeman, a larcenous circus worker, a wise bartender with his stable of whores, a hard-boiled gambling house owner named Joe Mott (“the whitest colored man I ever knew,” says the British vet) and, presiding over all, irascible and softhearted, Harry Hope himself.
Death pervades the evening. “The cops ignore this dump,” says Larry. “They think it’s as harmless as a graveyard.” Then, quoting poet Heinrich Heine, he says, “Sleep is good; better is death.” Later, he says about Hickey, “He’s brought death here with him.”
Taking his cue from such lines, director Falls’s production emphasizes the funereal, especially in the final act, when the defeated bums and tarts sit looking as they were already corpses. When Hickey delivers his lengthy Act Four monologue, he tries to wake these dead souls but, in reality, it’s Hickey himself who seeks finality.
Nathan Lane’s Hickey is physically adept, cocky, satanic, with a salesman’s braggadocio. This vibrant genius of an actor doesn’t quite convince as a tragic figure but is mesmerizing nevertheless.
As Larry, Brian Dennehy tempers the character’s stoicism with a reserve of quiet anger that is truly frightening. Stephen Ouimette is a heartbreaking Harry Hope, Kate Arrington a commandingly tough Cora, one of the tarts, John Douglas Thompson a powerful Joe Mott, Salvatore Inzerillo a complex bartender and James Harms brilliant as Jimmy Tomorrow.
As vital to the success are the set design by Kevin Depinet, inspired by a John Conklin design, Natasha Katz’s melancholy lighting and Merrily Murray-Walsh’s spiffy to threadbare costumes. Working at the top of their game, they join with the director, actors and, of course, author, to show us the complex pleasure and pertinence of great theater.
-- David A , Rosenberg
Feb. 24, 2015