“The people in that saloon were the best I’ve ever known,” Eugene O’Neill wrote about the motley crew that occupied Jimmy-the-Priest’s, the dive bar which provided the inspiration for The Iceman Cometh and the one in which the playwright attempted suicide in 1912. This conflict—good company, bad circumstances—dominates Iceman, a drama about a makeshift (and most homosocial) family of drunks nursing their pipe dreams and encouraging those of their brothers and sisters.
At the head of the table is the ironically named widower Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette), the proprietor of the saloon who alternately gripes about the debts owed him and passes out free drinks to those who need them most—which, here, is pretty much everyone. Off in the corner is Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy), the “Foolosopher” who continues to bury heartbreak from a lifetime ago and brags about his eagerness for death. Filling out the room are a series of delusionals, including a Tom (John Douglas Thompson) who wants nothing more than to forget his Blackness and a Harvard Law School alumnus (John Hoogenakker) eager to belt out the old Ivy League tunes whenever he’s steadied his DTs.
The cycle of drinking, sleeping, and havering is broken by two intruders. The first is Don (Patrick Andrews), son of Larry’s old flame, the anarchist Rosa Parritt, who has recently been snagged by the cops. The second is Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane), a seasonal boozer who stops in this time not to fund and share in round after round (as he usually does) but to spread a newly-discovered gospel: free yourselves from your pipe dreams and you will fear nothing.
This, needless to say, is a message that the family doesn’t especially appreciate.
O’Neill’s play is a bit like a drunk itself (albeit a rather articulate one): loud, candid, wearing its heart and its themes on its sleeves. We certainly didn’t come for subtlety, but subtlety’s tyranny over high art is not necessarily a good thing. If we don’t fault Arthur Miller for writing of poor Willy Loman, “Nobody dast blame this man,” then we shouldn’t fault O’Neill for his long monologues, elephantine symbolism, and stubborn resistance to brevity. This kind of drama, too easy to undervalue and nitpick, opens us up to a kind of pure catharsis that is impossible with more reserved theater. And elephantine symbolism can occasionally elicit elephantine emotions.
Robert Falls’ revival of The Iceman Cometh, transferred from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and currently running at BAM, is likely the best that will be seen for quite some time. In an interesting and cinematic move, the set is partially rotated during each intermission, allowing us a slightly different view of the saloon in every new act and suggesting opposing feelings of freedom and claustrophobia. Mr. Dennehy, who often grunts his way through roles he isn’t suited for, is perfectly cast. With a face like a sack of potatoes, he is the one strictly internal performer here, the only actor onstage who tells us more through inference and silence than he does through gestures and dialogue; there are moments where, hulking quietly in the corner, he is electric. Mr. Lane, like all great comedians, has long harbored a deep melancholy, one which was touched upon in The Nance but finds full expression in O’Neill. His Hickey is the relentless salesman, pitching his product with such feverish enthusiasm that it is only when the policemen appear in the wings that he begins to doubt the quality of his goods. His thick eyebrows, forming an inverted V, no longer express mirth but desperation.
Most importantly, Mr. Dennehy, Mr. Lane, and the rest of the cast exude such love for one another that we cannot help but be seduced by the sincerity of this sloppy and sappy family. There is something very American here, and surely it has never been clearer that The Iceman Cometh belongs to a tradition of great, homegrown melodrama that includes everything from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid to The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda.”