We gave it an A
You know the old saying about how there’s nothing worse than listening to a bunch of drunks prattling on in a bar? There happens to be an exception to that statement. For not one second of the four hours and forty-five minutes that transpire during Brooklyn Academy of Music’s presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh will you want to be anywhere else. This import of Chicago’s wildly successful 2012 Goodman Theatre production–now playing at BAM through March 15–pulls of that rare feat of re-presenting a laborious, often difficult work through a refreshed lens in such a way that it feels utterly reborn as a piece of classical theater.
Robert Falls’ stark, stunning revival (aided immeasurably by Natasha Katz’s shivery lighting and Kevin Depinet’s Edward Gorey-like scenic environs) is notable in how it recreates the ravages of alcoholism from the inside out, which is present from the very first striking tableau of a group of lifeless men strewn over tables and chairs of a bar’s backroom. From the production’s opening moments, you’re not quite sure if you’re in a seedy drinking hole or a death camp. They comprise the core constituents of O’Neill’s four-act treatise, a motley band of self-displaced outsiders who wile the days away voicing “pipe dreams” waiting for their charismatic, larger-than-life ringleader Hickey (Nathan Lane, game-changingly superb) to pep talk them into rejoining the human race.
Most Icemans are lucky to have at least half of the nearly 20-member cast resonate. But in this laser-sharp rendering, each seems to have a distinct, lived-in personality as they wile the days away, with everyone from Stephen Ouimette’s expertly nuanced, judgment-lapsed saloon proprietor to John Douglas Thompson (coming off a triumph in Theatre For a New Audience’s Tamburlaine), simply shattering as the bar’s sole black patron, to Kate Arrington’s piercingly downtrodden streetwalker-turned-fiancee. And the stirring Brian Dennehy, a one-time Hickey himself (for director Falls, no less) has graduated on to play the grizzled Larry (or “Old Cemetery”, as he’s later referred), O’Neill’s ex-anarchist and unique voice of reason in this sea of sweaty, slurring addicts. As in his best roles, Dennehy is unfailingly authentic.
The role of Hickey requires no less than a magician to pull off–he has to be instantly adored and just as instantly despised, carry off a reservoir of mystery and contradictions all at once, and yet somehow retain the sympathies of both O’Neill’s tavern townies and the audience watching him. (Jason Robards and Kevin Spacey are among the brave souls who’ve taken him on in previous productions.) So what great luck that this interpretation has Lane, the stage’s greatest modern magician, to breathe new life into him.
It’s widely assumed that Lane is perhaps our greatest musical-comedy star (he’s certainly one of the only bankable pure-Broadway luminaries), but he is just as much of a force of nature in dramatic roles. One of the brightest ideas of this staging is to repurpose Lane as a nearly fourth-wall breaking orator; in Hickey’s devastating final-act confessional, he addresses us directly–rather than his affectless pub “friends” too numbed-out to give him proper attention–and the results are fiery yet alarmingly intimate. Like his recent, shoulda-been-Tony’d coup as the tortured vaudeville star in The Nance a few seasons ago, Lane seems to continually reach into darker recesses to uncover these poor souls, so Hickey seems like the natural progression in a magnificent career that just keeps surprising theatergoers. May it never, ever cease. A