The last time Chicago audiences saw Nathan Lane on stage, he was singing and dancing with a chorus of once-dead “Addams Family” ancestors. Now, at Chi’s Goodman Theater, he’s admirably and ably stretching his tragic chops, playing pipe-dream-destroying salesman Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth 1939 play “The Iceman Cometh.” No singing and dancing, but he’s still hanging out with the undead: In Robert Falls’ rewarding, frequently volcanic production, the down-and-out denizens of Harry Hope’s bar/boarding house, referred to by Brian Dennehy’s nihilistic philosopher Larry Slade as the “End of the Line Cafe,” look and often behave like zombies.
The beginning of the show is startling. The lights come up dimly, only gradually revealing the full room filled with snoring drunks dressed in colorless, drab rags. This vast array of the sitting dead stir individually to announce themselves and plead for drinks.
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Lane’s Hickey, wearing a shiny black pinstripe suit and a well-manicured moustache, is more than a pick-me-up when he enters toward the end of the first act. He comes from a different world; he is life itself intruding on a tomb.
Lane is as talented as the play is long, and at four hours and 40 minutes, that’s saying something. He brings out qualities in Hickey that perhaps no actor could highlight as effectively, particularly the salesmanship and the buoyant presence that makes folks pine for his presence.
When Hickey insists on “helping” the others to “become truly free” by confronting their self-delusions about all they’ll do “tomorrow,” we can feel the characters being repelled as if his magnetism had taken on a negative charge. The force is so extreme that at times it becomes very effective black comedy.
There are moments, despite Lane’s extraordinary skill, when the actor’s relationship to the character feels strained. It’s never truly believable his Hickey would fit among this rough, salty crew. But the trade-off yields the rewarding opportunity to watch an extraordinary actor stretch into an iconic role, with flashes of brilliance.
In this enormous ensemble, a few supporting perfs stand out. Dennehy, with bushy white eyebrows and stylized makeup that give him deeply sunken eyes and a deathly pale pallor, is quietly intense as the tortured Larry Slade, who spends most of his time blankly staring forward, trying hard not to feel anything.
As the African-American former casino owner Joe Mott, John Douglas Thompson finds all the layers of pride, resentment and defeat, and delivers, surprisingly, the show’s single most stirring speech. James Harms, as Jimmy Tomorrow, has such a deep touch of kindness to him that he’s instantly likable and thoroughly poignant.
And then there’s Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope. For much of the show, he alternates convincingly between insisting on back payment in a spitting fury and expressing apologies for doing so. When he tries and fails to confront his fears of going outside, it almost seems he has formed another set of circles under his eyes. It’s the most moving performance overall.
The final act belongs to Lane. Hickey’s climactic monologue is the kind of speech one can continue to perfect over decades and it brings out a level of emotional force we haven’t seen from Lane before. If he’s not usually the type of actor who turns a character’s soul inside out, he’s got a good start here.