Dearth of a Salesman


I should, I suppose, be grateful for small favors. The Broadway system that can make the tourists line up for a four-and-a-half-hour play, at $100 a pop, must be doing something right. The Iceman Cometh, being a great play, deserves sold-out houses, even if its greatness is no more visible here than in earlier Broadway revivals. It was established as a masterpiece, of course, by the late José Quintero’s 1956 Off-Broadway revival, with the young Jason Robards at the peak of his youthful form. I saw the reduced version shown on NET, and the image of Robards is still stuck in my memory, smiling his salesmanlike way through Hickey’s marathon last speech, his haunted eyes seeming to sink deeper and deeper into his skull.

No image so intense is likely to remain with me from Howard Davies’s current revival. The gist of O’Neill’s play is big and simple, as tragedy should be, and Davies hasn’t violated it by imposing any topsy-turvy interpretations or grotesque visions of the kind that have maimed his earlier productions. His Iceman Cometh is perfectly competent work, with a number of good performances.

Yet there’s something wrong. The feel of the play, as opposed to its sense, is caught for a minute or two, then drifts away into inconsequence, like an alcoholic’s conversation. The fierce kick of the play’s negative beauty is gone; we’re deprived of it as efficiently as Hickey, forcing the onstage drunks to see their own pretenses, deprives their booze of its old kick. Just as life, for O’Neill, isn’t livable without the illusion that keeps you besotted, the play, without its beauty, might not be worth experiencing.

Illusions, like alcohol, are addictive. Which is why O’Neill preferred the term “pipe dream”— an allusion to yet another kind of addiction. The men who gather in Harry Hope’s saloon in 1912 are hooked on illusions— one per customer— as well as rotgut. At the center is a trio of key figures: youth, maturity, and old age. Parritt, the youngster, has betrayed his anarchist mother to the feds and now wants forgiveness from his surrogate father. Hickey, once the saloon crew’s pet enabler, has murdered his wife and wants absolution. Parritt’s paternal pal Larry Slade, the dive’s resident cynic, hasn’t destroyed anybody, not even himself. Death, the fourth term in the sequence, duly arrives, but for the two younger men; old-age Larry is stuck, clinging to life and lying to himself about it, like the rest of the cowards. Hickey thinks he’s shown them all the truth about themselves, but, like his version of the truth about his wife’s death, this too turns out to be an illusion.

O’Neill was deeply affected by his mother’s emotional Catholicism, and the work is a kind of non-Passion play, with Hickey an anti-Messiah, bringing disillusion instead of redemption, death— the iceman— instead of salvation. The stage directions evoke the Last Supper, the dialogue is full of Christian references disguised as profane colloquialisms, and the whole thing ends with the death of a son who’s never known his father’s identity. This is only one of many realms of experience and thought with which O’Neill infuses the play; the structure may be simple, but the texture is woozily dense, like barroom air.

Davies does away with both claustrophobic realism and religiosity, starting with an eccentric set, by Bob Crowley, that crowds the tables to one side of the ceilingless room, displaying the windows of the flophouse upstairs, as if this were a mews or an atrium. This dissipates the close atmosphere, while Davies reverses the play’s pattern of emphasis: Casual remarks are inflated by yells, pauses, and poses into heavily italicized sermonettes; the more-significant scenes tend to be raced through at power-saw tempo. Where you’d expect accumulated alcohol to blur and tone down the men’s personality traits, they’re assertive and shiny. Oddly, the actors who’ve been playing the show for months in London tend to seem the most ill at ease: Tim Pigott-Smith’s shouty Larry appears to be auditioning to do standup in Vegas, and James Hazeldine’s glum, lumpish Harry Hope gives no glimpse of either his sociable-publican or his agoraphobe side. More effective is Clarke Peters as the black gambler Joe Mott, whose grandstanding is appropriate, though Davies allows him so much leeway you’d think Joe was the lead role. And Patrick L. Godfrey does well as the English officer, even if you can’t believe this soft-spoken gent ever saw combat.

That goes double for Ed Dixon, whose Boer officer is just his Thénardier from Les Miz without a song. And Stephen Singer’s Hugo takes drunkenness into incomprehensibility. Otherwise, the American cast members seem to fit much more naturally in the play. Even Michael Emerson’s Willie Oban would, if he didn’t insist on underscoring every point six or eight times. Tony Danza’s voice carries a hint of strain, but his New York presence is as rich as the scent of home cooking. Paul Giamatti’s Jimmy Tomorrow is the essence of O’Neill’s point, while the byplay of Richard Riehle and Jeff Weiss, as Harry’s sidekicks, exactly hits the balance of reality and vaudeville act this duo needs.

Robert Sean Leonard’s Parritt, directed to speed through big chunks of emotional confession, struggles fiercely to fill them with the young betrayer’s panic and confusion. For the fourth act, Davies sticks him on a bar stool, very far stage right, so that his responses to Hickey’s speech must be shouted over to Larry, at a table miles away, breaking the momentum and fatally tilting the focus. Davies’s dubious justification might be that Kevin Spacey, as Hickey, is literally nowhere. Salesmanship this fast-talking fellow has, but it’s the dour kind that charges ahead and stops for nothing till the deal is clinched. Salesmen ride on Arthur Miller’s “smile and a shoeshine”; Spacey omits the first item, suggesting, instead of the deceitful glad-hander Hickey, an irate Harold Hill in some dark rethinking of The Music Man. He doesn’t lure; he barks peremptory commands, and it’s hard to see why anyone would obey. The giant confessional speech— after he’s phoned the cops to turn himself in— is irately sullen, animated largely by a desire to get through the lines at maximum speed. Hickey’s intent is sadistic: he’s punishing his cronies, as he has his wife, for his own failings. But to play this openly, when he doesn’t know it himself, is to remove both the drama and the illusion that links Hickey to the rest. His big speech is now not a revelation but an irrelevant act of bravura. The bar characters have become the center, and Hickey just a pushy minor figure harassing them. Appropriately, Davies has set up the final scene so that Spacey, downstage, can either face us and turn his back on the men, talk to them and ignore us, or weave awkwardly among their tables. He does all three, to decreasing effect. With the final sound effect of Parritt’s offstage death as faint as it is, the tourists may not even notice that the iceman’s come.

You could notice everything in Declan Donnellan’s pellucid staging of Le Cid, from the Avignon Festival. Donnellan presented 17th-century France’s version of medieval Spain on a stage bare except for bodies, a few chairs, and an occasional shawl or scimitar. Using movie-conscious tactics like playing talk scenes against the violence supposed to be happening offstage, he actually gave a grander and richer effect than the old style could have done— particularly because his generally strong company was able to catch his approach and reconcile it to Corneille’s fierce, clean-hewed oratory.

Rodrigue loves Chimene, but they’re separated by their hotheaded fathers’ rivalry. The rules of court decorum get tangled in those of family honor till only a royal deceit can save the day for love. Donnellan neither lost nor belabored the many ironies involved; the two minor flaws in his work were some early busy-busy with crowds, and too much kidding of the last act’s twisty resolution. Donnellan brought off his stylish coup, too, with neither a strong Rodrigue nor a particularly touching Chimene, though the many standout performances included Patrick Rameau’s wily, wheedling king, Sandrine Attard as his bad-girl daughter, and the lovers’ contentious fathers, Michel Baumann and Pierre Blanchar.

Archive Highlights