On the face of it, casting Nathan Lane in a Eugene O’Neill play seems about as good an idea as casting Ethel Merman as Medea. Lane is a born musical-comedy clown in the shamelessly hammy vaudeville tradition, while O’Neill is far and away the gloomiest of the great dramatists. His work is the last place you should go looking for yuks, excepting of course a funeral and The Big Bang Theory.
So, all right, Lane and O’Neill are strange bedfellows. But as it turns out, Lane’s performance in The Iceman Cometh is by no means a disaster. It’s not entirely a triumph, either, but he doesn’t embarrass himself, and now and then comes close to evoking the mix of horror and pity O’Neill was aiming for.
The play’s four acts take place at Harry Hope’s beyond-seedy saloon and rooming house, which is inhabited by a bunch of booze-soaked bums, each of whom harbors his own pathetic pipe dream. Among the 18 characters (portrayed in the Goodman’s production by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast), there’s a pair of disgraced soldiers parading around like war heroes, a washed-up journalist forever planning his return to the workforce, a black entrepreneur who wants to be white, whores who insist they’re merely “tarts,” a socialist prophesying revolution, and old-timer Larry, who pretends not to care about anything.
Lane plays Hickey, a traveling salesman beloved by the tenants because whenever he passes through on one of his periodic benders he always brings good times and a wad of cash to pay for drinks. Only this time he’s different. He’s still as jovial as ever—but sober, and eerily intent on disabusing the barflies of their illusions. He wants to clear away the fog of yesterdays and tomorrows so his friends can finally face who they really are.
As with all great works of art, O’Neill’s grandly messy play resists easy interpretation. No sooner have we recoiled from the characters’ satisfaction with lying to themselves than we start to feel sorry for them as Hickey mercilessly—but with a smile, mind you—demolishes every last one of their futile hopes.
With his charisma and sense of humor, Lane is good at conveying Hickey’s life-of-the-party bonhomie and does a creditable impression of a road-to-Damascus convert. His largely external performance, however, leaves less room for the man’s shrewdness and darker depths (and his barking line readings occasionally slide toward the Regis Philbin–esque).
Robert Falls, who first directed the play in 1990, supplies an austere staging in fruitful contrast to the overflowing verbal abundance of the script. Displaying a painterly sense of composition, Falls uses Natasha Katz’s sculptural lighting design and Kevin Depinet’s monumental, mud-colored sets to subtly reference everything from Caravaggio’s half-lit religious canvases to Edward Hopper’s melancholy loners.
That 1990 production became the first of many O’Neill collaborations between Falls and actor Brian Dennehy, who played Hickey. Twenty-two years later, he’s transitioned to the role of Larry, the barstool nihilist cursed with a sense of decency and a will to live in spite of what he professes. By turns sardonic, mournful and filled with a terrifying rage, Dennehy undertakes an evening-long struggle with himself that’s riveting to watch.