At long last, Robert Falls’ vaunted 2012 Goodman Theater production of “The Iceman Cometh,” Eugene O’Neill’s searing epic drama about existential alienation, has come to New York. Framed like a painting from the Ashcan School of melancholy beauty, this stunningly designed ensemble piece features a towering performance from Brian Dennehy, as the resident philosopher of a flophouse saloon, and Nathan Lane, in a career-defining turn as a traveling salesman who sells the down-and-out denizens of this hellhole a bill of goods that promises salvation, but delivers nothing but misery.
The vast stage of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater makes a magnificent canvas for this expansively scaled production. Channeling the great John Conklin, set designer Kevin Depinet works from a palette of distressed shades of greens, grays, and browns to create the prison-like setting of Harry Hope’s Saloon. Lighting designer Natasha Katz opens the play in total darkness, gradually lifting the gloom until the day dawns on the back room of Harry’s joint, revealing a half-dozen wooden tables where a bunch of stewbums who have spent the night slumped over in their chairs slowly twitch to life, in desperate need of the first drink of the day.
Larry Slade (Dennehy), a onetime political firebrand who has long lost his ideals, sits off to the side, surveying this scene of quiet desperation with gloomy cynicism. “To hell with the truth!” is his greeting to the new day. “The truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.”
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This is the lie that Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman (Lane) will eventually demolish, once he makes his arrival at the end of Act One. Working his way from one loser to the next, he will pick, poke and prod at the comforting narratives they have made up about their lives. Feigning belief in their pathetic pipe dreams, he’ll give them the means (and the spiffy wardrobes supplied by Merrily Murray-Walsh) to realize their ambitions — and then wait for the supposedly liberating truth about themselves to dawn.
But before he can begin his evangelizing efforts, Hickey must first establish good will with his boozy companions. This is the face of O’Neill’s deeply fascinating but troubled character that Lane knows intimately and understands perfectly. Working the room like the prototypical slick salesman that people can’t help themselves from liking and trusting with their lives and their life’s savings, Lane prances around Harry’s last-chance saloon spreading laughter, good cheer and free booze. The character is irresistible and so is Lane.
Ten long hours later (oh, excuse me — it’s not even five), Lane will find himself floundering in the epic aria during which Hickey unburdens himself of his own pipedream. But who could blame him? Like the play itself, the scene is wordy, repetitious and seriously overwritten. Artistic purity be damned; the play, the playwright, the actors, and the audience would have been better served by a streamlined version of the overwrought script.
That said, if not universally acknowledged by purists, it’s a tribute to helmer Robert Falls and his fine ensemble that, no matter how exhausted, the audience remains spellbound.
Many of the performers are repeating the roles they created in the original 2012 production, and some of them seem to own their characters, who represent a cross-section of society’s wretched rejects. Stephen Ouimette is heartbreaking as Harry Hope, who hasn’t stepped outside his saloon in 20 years, still in mourning for his beloved late wife — or so he believes, until Hickey forces him to come clean about the ties that really bind him here. James Harms could make a turnip weep as James Cameron, a sad old newsman known as Jimmy Tomorrow for his insistence that he will march right into his old newsroom and re-claim his job — tomorrow. And John Douglas Thompson, a formidable classical actor, is downright riveting as Joe Mott, the former owner of a Negro gambling house who only needs a decent stake to step back into his old life — provided he can keep his towering rage in check.
Not all of the performances are on that level. Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), the sniveling runaway from his mother’s cell of political radicals, is supposed to be pathetic, not irritating. But even smaller roles can be electrifying in the hands of someone like Lee Wilkof, who makes that boring old anarchist, Hugo Kalmar, far more complex and much more frightening than he’s traditionally played. And Kate Arrington brings a lovely quality to Cora, the much-traveled streetwalker who keeps promising to walk away from her profession.
O’Neill writes with furious passion about the lies that blind us to our true selves. In Hickey’s voice, he makes a case for truth being the absolution of guilt. But then there’s Larry Slade’s argument that we’ve earned our guilt and should live — or die — with it. At the end of this harrowing look into the souls of the damned, we’re more inclined to say: Whatever gets you through the night.