There’s been much talk in the entertainment world of late about things titanic, so it’s with real pleasure that one can report an additional definition of the word — Kevin Spacey’s performance as Theodore Hickman, the hardware salesman known as Hickey, in the new Almeida Theater staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
Is Howard Davies’s production its leading player’s match? Not by some measure , and Americans, in particular, may be dismayed by an array of accents that would suggest O’Neill’s 1946 marathon as an inadvertent harbinger of “Guys and Dolls” (which perhaps O’Neill’s epic of nihilism in some bizarre way is.) But Spacey is the self-evident draw here, and his achingly compassionate, yet merciless, Hickey offers the kind of occasion from which hallowed theatrical memories are made.
His achievement is that much greater when one considers how deft and light on its feet it seems within a play that could in no way be described as either. Running at well over four hours, “The Iceman Cometh” contains repetitions inseparable from the power of a play whose descent into the abyss is as deliberate as it is harrowing. O’Neill doesn’t tell us once if he can tell us 25 times about his characters’ addictions to the panacea that is the “pipe dream.” And what little goes left unsaid is hammered ironically home: the saloon’s no-hoper of a proprietor is called, naturally, Harry Hope.
What matters isn’t the subtlety (or not) with which O’Neill paints these bleary-eyed barflies on a summer’s day in 1912. The real issue is the cumulative affective weight that a company can bring to bear on this unimaginably tortured portrait of humankind’s lower depths. If “The Iceman Cometh” depends upon often macabre gallows humor to keep an audience gripped, Hickey is its not-so-unknowing hangman.
This Hickey springs on stage a bantam Babbitt figure, singing “It’s Always Fair Weather” in falsetto and dispensing enough energy and charm to make the bar’s slouched-over, stupefied habitus (not to mention the audience) sit up. He has come proffering “real peace” which listeners can acquire at the sizable price of self-knowledge. Shed a life of lies, he argues, and liberation can be yours, even if the riposte to his belief exists in one-time anarchist Larry Slade (Tim Pigott-Smith), a lucid chronicler of misery who inhabits a living death.
Slade isn’t the only semi-ambulatory corpse; he’s merely the most clear-eyed. Fantasists engaged in their ownfalsification of life include Don Parritt (Rupert Graves), the putative mama’s boy and revolutionary whom Hickey recognizes as an infernal kinsman; Harvard law graduate Willie Oban (Duncan Bell in the supporting cast’s outstanding performance), a would-be scholar terrified of his own shadow; and Harry Hope himself (a gruff James Hazeldine), a widower of 20 years whose memories of his wife may have little to do with the woman she actually was. It’s O’Neill’s frightening point that these people venture outside only to seek refuge back at the bar: as Slade suggests, the “inmates” are in blighted need of their prison.
Some of the low-lifers, it must be said, are written as a bundle of tics, not as individuals: it’s hard to know what else Ian Bartholomew could do with the part of former journalist James Cameron (sic) — known as Jimmy Tomorrow — other than indulge his every twitch. Similarly, it’s hard to blame the three actresses (a vibrant Emily Morgan, especially) if the “tarts” all sound as if they were coached to varying degrees by Betty Boop. Pigott-Smith, in turn, sounds the right technical notes without laying bare Slade’s acquaintanceship with the very “iceman,” death, that turns out to be Hickey’s accomplice.
Directing this play for the second time, Davies fields some arresting motionless and/or silent tableaux that locate the cusp between dream and nightmare where the play itself takes place.
But there’s something a bit studied about these boozy, washed-out wastrels who seem to be annotating their own demise, not experiencing it spontaneously.
That’s where Spacey again reigns supreme, following on from a sunken-eyed Jason Robards (and a dull Brian Dennehy) to fashion Hickey anew as an evangelist offering up tidings far grimmer than they are glad. He shows us an erstwhile prophet of hope hollowed out by guilt and pain, embarked on a path to redemption that leads him straight to hell.