We tend to accept that certain plays carry a weight that makes them permanently
essential. The Iceman Cometh is one of them. With its quasi-
biblical title, Eugene O’Neill’s barroom epic whispers of salvation and promises a deep dive into human character that few contemporary plays aspire to. But even in Robert Falls’s stately, sometimes ennobling, production — created for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and now in a limited run at BAM — this portentous drama’s limitations become apparent.
O’Neill pioneered the use of American vernacular speech in various stage experiments. Here, in Harry Hope’s Bowery saloon and rooming house, the down-and-out characters speak with thick, old-time New York accents and century-old locutions that sometimes feel like more work than they’re worth. The dialogue, self-consciously lyrical but rarely subtle, repeats information and phrases frequently: Just count the number of times these Bowery boys and girls lament their “pipe dream” or announce their thirst for a drink.
Iceman holds more interest for us today in the symbolic sphere than as realism. The tale of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane) — the traveling salesman who haunts the Hope house so he can break the residents’ alcoholic delusions — relies on last-act revelations that can be hard to fathom. O’Neill wrote a prolonged psychological striptease, but the allure fades as we journey irrevocably toward disclosure of Hickey’s secrets. Falls, a director with a long history of accomplished O’Neill revivals under his belt, approaches this five-hour production with a painter’s eye, a strong ensemble, and two stars of varying wattage.
Watch the opening of each act carefully and you can admire Falls’s gorgeous tableaux vivants. Act One shows drinkers hunched over tables in a darkened back room, each in his own private purgatory. The next act reveals the saddest group of birthday revelers you’ve ever seen, seated along a great table. Act Three puts the actors in the foreground with great doors upstage opening onto the street and a new life beyond. For the final scene, bodies again separate in space, as each dreamer sits soused at his own table, his own private hell. “Stiffs cheating the undertaker,” Hickey calls them. (Kevin Depinet designed the evocative set.)
Brian Dennehy — now America’s most formidable O’Neill actor (in the tradition of the late Jason Robards) — played Hickey in Falls’s 1990 Goodman staging. Here he takes the lesser role of Larry Slade, a former syndicalist-anarchist who smolders from his corner barstool, angry at lost loves and dreams. Dennehy might have the smaller role, but he gives it titan stature. (You keep waiting for him to have a bigger scene, and it doesn’t come until late.) As his enemy, Lane represents a much bigger casting risk for this production — ultimately he’s not a dramatic repertory actor. Although he gets forceful, yelling and swaggering, his performance stays on the exterior. Lane never convinces us that darkness drives Hickey’s newfound sobriety — or that the resentments behind this salesman’s evangelical zeal can cut with a lethal edge. “I’ve had hell inside me. I can spot it in another,” he declares, but it’s hard to believe the first part.
The company gives a number of fine performances, most notably John Douglas Thompson, who plays the down-on-his-luck owner of a Negro gambling house. Ironically, if Falls’s expressive version manages to eclipse O’Neill’s wearying play, it’s because his ensemble and visuals rely on a constellation of lost souls, rather than a single star.