April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Iceman Cometh is the saddest man-walks-into-a-bar joke you’ll ever hear, and the longest, too.

When Eugene O’Neill’s great, careening monster of a play premiered in 1946, theatergoers were given a 75-minute dinner break at the end of Act 1, and invited back for three more hours of drunkenness, despair, and delusion. How do you thank a guy for a treat like that? Ask Howard Davies, whose acclaimed London production, now on Broadway for a limited run through June 26, features an early opening curtain instead of time off for calamari and arugula. The British director expresses his gratitude to O’Neill three ways: by finding inside Iceman‘s brooding hulk the playwright’s comic gift; by assembling an extraordinary transatlantic ensemble of character actors; and by casting Kevin Spacey as Hickey, the scamp-turned-Savonarola at the play’s ruined, brutal heart.

For the staggering $100 price tag on the best seats, Spacey puts out enough energy to power the subways. If there’s a flaw in this hyperkinetic performance, it’s that so subtle an actor (see his Oscar-winning work in The Usual Suspects) seems peculiarly unmodulated — either he’s pensive or he’s screaming, and rarely anywhere in between. Spacey may overdo it, but it’s a forgivable crime. For the essence of the role resides precisely in Hickey’s divided nature — half morose and half manic, half cynic and half savior. He’s the traveling salesman who usually brings jokes, joy, and an open bar tab to the drunken wrecks who populate Harry Hope’s tavern, but on this trip Hickey is delivering the last thing any of them wants: an end to their crummy illusions.

Spacey doesn’t sort out the pieces of Hickey; he lets them erupt in torrents of O’Neill’s salvation-seeking poetry. At times, he talks so fast you’d think the prime objective is to bring in a 4-hour-and-20-minute play in 4 and 15. But if you sometimes miss a phrase or two in Spacey’s frantically cascading incantations, you cannot miss their gist. From his first raucous appearance a full hour into the play, he grabs the action with a terrifying physicality, finally wrenching the stage from O’Neill’s self- deluding barflies with the Act 4 aria of despair and self-loathing that is the play’s inevitable destination.

Those barflies: O’Neill called them up from his own early days sleeping on saloon tabletops when he was too broke and too boozed out to pay for a flophouse room. If there were a bar at the end of the world, it would look like this one, a sinking Noah’s ark carrying every known species of loser, fraud, and coward. Robert Sean Leonard, who reaches for pathos but grasps only melodrama, simply can’t handle the difficult role of Parritt, the young radical who has betrayed his friends and family. But Davies has the rest of this terrific bunch of Broadway veterans and British imports play the stories of their wrecked lives for the painful laughs that are tragedy’s ironic complement. They’re funny because the alternatives are so damned awful.

If there’s an oddity in this fine production, it has to be the unlikely choice of Tony Danza to play the bartender/pimp, the only sober man in the joint. (On hearing that Danza was in the cast, my cynical friend who calls himself the Big Shooter asked hopefully if O’Neill had written any nonspeaking characters who die very early in the first act.) In fact, Danza is more than adequate to the task, but even an inappropriate Danza could not have hindered the Spacey juggernaut; this Hickey is so large it wouldn’t matter if the bartender role had gone to Tony Orlando. (TM) A-

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