Reviewed by Carlos Stafford
Fire and Ice
On the corner of 6th Ave and West 4th Street in Greeenwich Village, NY, once stood the The Golden Swan, a rooming house/bar that became the inspiration for our greatest American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and his play, “The Iceman Cometh. Outside the entrance stood a golden swan, an ironic symbol of fulfillment through responsible action. Through those doors walked the characters, in the early 1900’s, that would give this institution its more familiar name, The Hell Hole. Nothing remains on the spot but a small garden as tribute.
Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy lead the brilliant ensemble cast, directed by Robert Falls, after having had a successful run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2012, and remarkably becoming the most popular play in the theatre’s 90 year history. Dennehy is familiar with the dark side of O’Neill tragedies, having played James Tyrone on Broadway in Long Days Journey Into Night in 2003 with Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Sean Leonard, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then, I remember Dennehy appearing at a bar down the street from the Plymouth stage door the eveninig I attended with my girlfriend, and quickly dashed up to the bar with us to have a well-deserved, good natured drink. He looked spent, and I remember we both admired the great performance he had just delivered.
This time, at BAM’s Harvey, Dennehy plays Larry Slade, and once again magnifies his character with power as the philosopher/retired anarchist, nicked-named Old Cemetary by his drinking associates. Slade was a member of the Movement for thirty years, but has had his fill. Slade sardonically describes his surroundings to a new arrival:
“What is it? It’s the No Chance Saloon, It’s Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Cafe, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! Don’t you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere. That’s because it’s the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no further they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows…”
The assortment of characters who drink, argue, and sleep away their days with pipe dreams include Piet Wetjoen, a farmer/soldier from South Africa, and friend Cecil Lewis, a militarry captain from England, who fought each other in the Boer war, and dream of returning to their respective countries; Joe Mott, a black gambling hall owner, down on his luck, vowing to reopen his defunct establishment; Willie Oban, a drunk Harvard law school grad with the DT’s, wishing to return to respectablity and the law; Ed Mosher, a carnival grifter promising a return to the great show; Jimmy Tomorrow, a beaten, shy man, who’s always cleaned and pressed and ready to go, promising it’s only a day away from his move; Don Parritt, a young, lost anarchist from the West Coast with a dark secret about his relationship to his anarchist mother, now in jail; Hugo Kalmar, and old, hypocrite anarchist from Europe who blabbers about the new world order, but a fascist at heart; an Italian barkeep named Rocky who pimps his stable of working girls, Cora and Margie, but bristles at being called a pimp, while calling himself a simple bartender helping out some tarts; Chuck, the morning bartender, who also has a girl he manages, Cora, and tries to trick himself into respectability through a reluctant marriage to her; and lastly, Harry Hope, the softhearted Irish owner whose wife has died 20 years earlier, and uses his love and remembrance of her as an excuse for giving up and hiding in the darkness of his bar.
But the main character is Nathan Lane who plays the famous role of Hickey, the bigger than life traveling salesman, who always shows up for Harry’s birthday, throws money around, buys drinks, and entertains the crew with his gags; especially the one about the Iceman visiting his wife while he’s away. The patrons can’t wait for his periodical arrival. Hickey is a savior of sorts, magical and mythical. He takes over, makes everyone forget their troubles. Everyone will drink their fill, laugh, and forget.
Lane has big shoes to follow in this role, coming from his comedic background, since this play has few laughs–its goes straight for the gut, is dark, gloomy with a large portion of grit and grime. Physically, Lane perfectly matches what O’Neil had in mind in describing Hickey, but one still wondered if this weighty role was the right fit for him.
Hickey arrives on time for the annual party, but this year he is different. He isn’t bringing a celebration of alcohol and good times, but rather a message no one wants to hear–a preacher’s message of salvation for the boys and girls, and a cure for their delusions of pipe dreams. He gaurantee’s a calming freedom, the peace from absence of guilt. He promises to help them free themselves, and although difficult, he will lead them to the real truth. For he has experienced it within himself, and he will show them how to achieve it. He sees beyond their excuses, and eventually convinces them to face their fears and to finally act, to give in, to live up to their words. But they all now openly hate him bitterly, and sense something deathly.
Lane is a brilliant actor with an agile, intelligent approach to Hickey, grounded with abundant force, energy and conviction. He uses emotion to convince his pals. Whereas Jason Roberts, the quintessential O’Neillian Hickey, delivered Hickey with a cool, distant, clear-eyed conviction, portending an eerily foreboding prophet of doom, Lane goes for the tortured humanity behind this complex character, and brings a different kind of sensitive pathos. This is seen especially when he reveals to the group his troubled marriage to Evelyn, his wretched failures, lies, and constant betrayals, and Evelyn’s constant forgiveness.
Hickey’s guilty suffering escalates to where he finds Evelyn’s forgiveness intolerable, even mocking, because he knows, and she must know, he’ll never change. But still she has faith in him, and he hates her for it. So, he chooses the only way out, to stop his tortue, and kills her while she sleeps. Now, he is free at last from her goodness, her forgiveness, and her understanding. As Hickey tells his friends, Evelyn was a big sucker for a pipe dream, and ironically would probably forgive him for the shot to her head. But Hickey’s pipe dream of peace through his insane decision, O’Neill seems to be saying, points up to those true believers in religion, politics and love who preach the wrong, deluded snake oil while being stuck in a persoanl existential quagmire.
The reformer is taken away by the cops, and the uncomfortable message of truth all suspected and despised, is forgotten–pipe dreams revealed masquerading as other pipe dreams. Most come away unscathed by the revelations, but one doesn’t, the guilt so bad. And more may eventually fall. For the others, the drinks flow, the answers lie at the bottom of the bottle, always out of reach, and life plods on gratefully.
The scope of this play is huge. Much too much to cover in a short statement. O’Neil put a lot into this work. Each character is a world unto itself, characters who grow larger and deeper as the play develops–shackled, ordinary people with profoundly ordinary problems. Everyone sees themselves in some of these characters. O’Neill knew people well. Everyone is represented, and this is why this play is so unique–its has a kind of terrible, tawdry, realistic beauty.
Some may say the play clocks into too long, 4 hours 45 minutes, but they say that about Wagner too. Sit back, it goes by fast. The cast is impeccable. Dehenney, Lane, Salvatorre Inzerillo, and John Douglas Thompson were especially great, but the ensemble as a whole had a organic unity that was stunning.
Some years before Iceman Cometh, O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 for his already considerable body of works. Here is part of the closing speech at the awards ceremony:
In choosing Eugene O’Neill as the recipient of the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy can express its appreciation of his peculiar and rare literary gifts and also express their homage to his personality in these words; the Prize has been awarded to him for dramatic works of vital energy, sincerity, and intensity of feeling, stamped with an original conception of tragedy.
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
At the BAM Harvey Theater
Harry Hope Stephen Ouimette
Ed Mosher Larry Neumann, Jr.
Rocky Pioggi Salvatore Inzerillo
Chuck Morello Marc Grapey
Piet Wetjoen John Judd
Cecil Lewis John Reeger
James Cameron James Harms
Joe Mott John Douglas Thompson
Larry Slade Brian Dennehy
Hugo Kalmar Lee Wilkof
Willie Oban John Hoogenakker
Don Parritt Patrick Andrews
Pearl Tara Sissom
Margie Lee Stark
Cora Kate Arrington
Theodore Hickman Nathan Lane
Moran Andrew Long
Lieb Brian Sgambati
Photo: Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in The Iceman Cometh