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The Iceman Cometh: Theater review by David Cote
Any responsible review of The Iceman Cometh must reiterate the fact that Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 descent into darkness runs—mental note, please—nearly five hours. And as thrillingly acted, designed and directed as Robert Falls’s revival unquestionably is, you feel the length. That’s not a problem for two reasons. First, this excruciating four-act drama about chronic drunks, toxic illusions and the inevitability of death should feel like an epic bender that leaves you slack-jawed and staggering into the queasy haze of dawn. Second, in this age of Netflix and Amazon binge-streaming, we can survive marathon narrative: By hour three, you half expect the voiceover “Previously on The Iceman Cometh…”
But of course, recaps are unnecessary; O’Neill’s late opus pursues a grimly lucid line from doped-up prelude to feverishly manic finale in its tale of hardware salesman Theodore Hickman (Lane), from “Hickey” to the dipsomaniacs, whores and other casualties of history that infest Harry Hope’s saloon circa 1912. These dead-end boozehounds form a microcosm of society’s garbage that newly minted teetotaler Hickey decides to clean up. Professing himself a man cured of pernicious illusions, Hickey preaches a gospel of brutal honesty, the road to peace and being happy (the latter word reprised at the end of the first three acts). The cosmic joke underlying O’Neill’s vision is that pipe dreams may be pathetic and grotesque, but they stave off obssessive thoughts of death. The iceman will take us whether we’re sober or drunk.
Nathan Lane is stupendous as Hickey, gracefully disengaging the role from its received image of harrowed, haunted leading men, established by greats such as Jason Robards, Lee Marvin and Kevin Spacey. Hickey is funny, manic, annoying and entertaining as hell. Lane can do all that. If you read O’Neill’s stage directions, you see that the actor is a perfect casting for Hickey, a plump, jolly fellow who arrives as a kind of anti-Bacchus and ends as a satanic clown. In Hickey’s epic fourth-act confessional speech, Lane exudes the sweaty miasma of contempt, shame and self-loathing that pours out of Hickey’s mouth.
Falls has gathered around Lane a fine ensemble of character-actors, including John Douglas Thompson as quick-tempered black gambler Joe; Stephen Ouimette as the hot-and-cold bar owner Harry; Salvatore Inzerillo, hulking and baby-faced as pimp-bartender Rocky; and craggy Brian Dennehy as morally paralyzed ex-anarchist Larry Slade. Nearly all of the cast appeared in this production’s 2013 Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre, and they play O’Neill’s verbal music with accomplished punch, sizzle and bite.
Not that you ever forget that the text is rife with repetition, heavy-handedness and overwriting. It’s a messy monument that comes with its own cracks and weeds squeezing through. O’Neill’s language has been criticized, even by his staunchest defenders, as problematic. From the tin-eared but truth-slinging Mary McCarthy in 1946 to a lightly condescending Edward Albee (in a foreword to the 2012 publication of O’Neill’s early one-act, Exorcism, a naïve antecedent to Iceman), there’s a consensus: O’Neill up close can be coarse, pulpy, leaden and exhausting. But the cumulative effect is awesome and cleansing. Maybe the playwright was drunk on his endless flow of words, maybe they were just pipe dreams, too. Who cares? I’ll drink it down if it kills me.—David Cote
BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Robert Falls. With Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Stephen Ouimette, John Douglas Thomas, Salvatore Inzerillo. Running time: 4hrs 45mins. Three intermissions.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote