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The Goodman Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill‘s classic drama The Iceman Cometh, now being presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after an acclaimed Chicago run three years ago, is a punishing experience.
And that’s meant as a compliment.
First, of course, there’s the matter of the play’s length. This uncut version of the drama, written in 1939 and first produced in 1946, runs nearly five hours, including three intermissions. Repetitive in its structure and often meandering in its dialogue, it requires intense concentration and stamina on the part of the audience.
But this production directed by O’Neill specialist Robert Falls — previously responsible for lauded interpretations of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Desire Under the Elms, among others — superbly mines the work’s inherent power and shattering force. Featuring the original Chicago cast headed by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, it is superbly acted and staged, fully conveying the desolation of life in Harry Hope’s bar in the Bowery, astutely dubbed by one character as “No Chance Saloon.”
The production begins in near total darkness, where the bar’s various denizens are sleeping off a bender that has clearly gone on for eons. It takes many minutes for the lights to slowly brighten, shining an uncomfortable spotlight on these lost souls who have retreated to an alcoholic stupor to compensate for the miseries in their lives.
It isn’t until shortly before the end of the first act that a life force arrives in the form of the outgoing traveling salesman Theodore Hickman, known as “Hickey” (Lane), whose periodic visits are eagerly anticipated. Except this time he’s come to deliver a different message from usual, proclaiming his newfound sobriety and pledging to rescue the bar’s customers from their “pipe dreams.” (Proposal for a new drinking game: take a shot every time that phrase is uttered onstage, and you’ll soon be as drunk as the characters).
Among those resistant to Hickey’s proselytizing are the former anarchist Larry Slade (Dennehy), now reduced to a shell of a man grimly contemplating the inevitable; the saloon’s proprietor Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette), who hasn’t stepped outside since the death of his wife 20 years earlier; Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkof), a former editor of anarchist magazines who spends most of the proceedings in a state of unconsciousness; Piet (John Judd) and Cecil (John Reeger), who once fought on opposite sides of the Boer War; Joe Mott (John Douglas Thompson), the sole African-American customer, who once ran a “Negro gambling house”; James, known as “Jimmy Tomorrow” (James Harms), a former war correspondent; and three jovial ladies of the evening (Tara Sissom, Lee Stark, Kate Arrington).
For the play to work it has to feel fully, deeply lived-in, and Falls’ hypnotic production succeeds in spades. For long stretches of the rambling drama very little happens, except for drunken banter in which the characters lay bare their despair and antagonisms in often rambling, discursive fashion. That it holds our attention over the course of this long night’s journey is a testament to the superb ensemble work on display, with the 18-member cast inhabiting their roles in a way that makes you fear for their emotional health.
Lane is the star attraction, following in the footsteps of such acclaimed predecessors in the challenging role as Jason Robards and, in the play’s most recent Broadway production in 1999, Kevin Spacey. Lane has played many dramatic roles before, but Hickey is a particularly daunting challenge to which he mostly rises to the occasion. If he doesn’t quite fully convey the underlying menace that can make the character so galvanizing, he effortlessly displays the charismatic bonhomie that makes Hickey’s infrequent appearances so welcome to the saloon’s denizens. And his delivery of the lengthy monologue late in the play in which the character confesses to a terrible crime displays a pathos and self-delusion that will long linger in your memory.
Dennehy, who himself played Hickey in an earlier Goodman Theater production, uses his imposing physical frame to powerful effect, barely moving a muscle for long stretches at a time but fully making us feel the extent of Slade’s emotional desolation. Other standouts in the cast are Ouimette, devastating as the inaccurately named Hope, and Thompson, whose rage-filled Joe threatens to erupt into violence at any time.
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Kevin Depinet‘s slightly skewed, expressionist set design and Natasha Katz‘s piercing lighting, which seems at times to expose the tortured souls onstage, add greatly to the overall effect, as does Merrily Murray-Walsh‘s perfectly tattered costumes.
The expansive Harvey Theater, despite its deliberately dilapidated environs that perfectly suit the play, unfortunately lacks the intimacy that would have enhanced the experience. But this production, imported under the auspices of BAM and producer Scott Rudin, is an invaluable addition to the theater season.
Cast: Stephen Ouimette, Larry Neumann, Jr., Salvatopre Inzerillo, Marc Grapey, John Judd, John Reeger, James Harms, John Douglas Thompson, Brian Dennehy, Lee Wilkof, John Hoogenakker, Patrick Andrews, Tara Sissom, Lee Stark, Kate Arrington, Nathan Lane, Andrew Long, Brian Sgambati
Director: Robert Falls
Playwright: Eugene O’Neill
Set designer: Kevin Depinet
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Costume designer: Merrily Murray-Walsh
Production: Goodman Theatre
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Scott Rudin
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