In Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” playing at the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Harvey Theater through March 15, in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre production, the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon and flophouse have hit rock bottom and, through inertia, mean to remain there, locked in the grip of “pipe dreams” that are crutches that keep them drinking. They can talk to Wagnerian lengths, but throughout this haunting, four-act, four-hour production, directed by Robert Falls, never fail to keep us riveted. A high-level ensemble, is anchored, in particular, by towering portrayals by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as, respectively, Hickey—Theodore Hickman, traveling salesman—one-time good-time guy, who appears to have seen the light and tries to motivate his erstwhile drinking buddies to shake off their torpor, and Larry Slade, a retired anarchist, who alone seems immune to the new brand of snake oil that Hickey is peddling.
Hickey has stopped drinking and comes back to town with a newfound zeal to explode all pipe dreams before his recent deeds catch up with him. He more or less nags his old cronies into temporary sobriety, encouraging them to go out and get back their jobs or their causes, get married, leave the shelter of the saloon, or stop lying to themselves about who they are—whatever it is they’ve been unable to get their acts together to do. The one time that we see them sober, shorn of the twin crutches of alcohol and lies, they’re at their most miserably uneasy.
Can lawyer Willie Oban (John Hoogenakker), who’s just gotten his presentable clothes out of hock, go to the District Attorney and demand a job, even though he’s clearly still got the DTs? Will Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette) be able to face the outdoors in daylight for the first time in 20 years and walk around the neighborhood? Can James Cameron, AKA Jimmy Tomorrow (James Harms), be a reporter once more or Joe Mott (John Douglas Thompson) reopen an exclusive casino for his fellow African-Americans? Will bartender Chuck Morello (Marc Grapey) and hooker Cora (Kate Arrington) really get married and move to the country or Ed Mosher (Larry Neumann, Jr.) stop sponging off brother-in-law Harry and rejoin the circus? Will Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo) make up his mind whether he’s a bartender or a pimp, with Pearl (Tara Sissom) and Margie (Lee Stark) as his “stable?” Will Piet Wetjoen (John Judd) and Cecil Lewis (John Reeger) stop re-fighting the Boer War long enough to work again? Are Larry (Dennehy) and Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkof) beyond regaining faith in the Movement? These are some of the questions that “Iceman” raises.
There’s music in the long speeches here and Lane’s Hickey’s entrance, singing and strewing paper money, and 11th-hour confessional ‘aria,’ where what starts out a laugh turns into a cry, will take your breath away. Dennehy’s Slade stoically resists playing father confessor to young Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), son of an anarchist, whose deeds and guilt parrot Hickey’s own, but Slade will neither forgive nor condemn. Is suicide cowardice or courage—or is it failure to commit suicide that’s cowardly—or is it just inertia? The ill treatment of wives and mothers, familiar O’Neill themes, play principal roles here: it’s significant that almost all the male characters are drunks, while the three female figures are whores, to put it bluntly, making one big happy family!
Kevin Depinet’s saloon set, after John Conklin; Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes; and Natasha Katz’s lighting are as dismal as they should be. As staged by Falls, Hope’s birthday party, meant by his hangers-on to be merry, especially comes off as pathetically depressing.
Falls and Lane, Dennehy, and the cast make this “Iceman” most memorable, so go and prepare to surrender to its louche and masterful magic. “Iceman” opened on February 5 and I saw the ninth performance, on Valentine’s Day yet. “Iceman,” in its limited engagement, plays on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Harvey at 651 Fulton Street, north of Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn. Visit www.BAM.org
or telephone 718/636-4100 for tickets priced from $35 to 130 on week nights and $45 to 150 on Saturdays and Sundays.