Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Iceman Cometh at BAM

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest and most celebrated playwright, spent the last years of his productive life exorcising the demons of his past. In his last creation, the posthumous Long Day's Journey into Night he succeeded in putting to rest the ghosts of his parents and his dead brother in four agonizing acts filled with remorse and guilt, and soaked with a generous amount of whiskey.

In his previous play The Iceman Cometh, finished in 1939, but not given its Broadway premiere until 1946, O'Neill resurrected the down-and-out creatures of the night that inhabited his Greenwich Village hangout, a dump called "Jimmie-The-Priest's," where the young, alcoholic soon-to-be Nobel Laureate paid three dollars a month to stay, drink and solidify his morbidity among a group of the walking dead. In the play, the establishment became "Harry Hope's Saloon," described by Larry Slade, one of the principal dwellers of these lower depths as ''the No Chance Saloon... the End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! . . . it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."

It was in such a place that O'Neill first came into contact with the many "pipe dreams" that were harbored there. It was here that he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, then contracted tuberculosis (in those days, a disease tantamount to a death warrant), and miraculously recovered to have a rebirth as a writer. He was all of 24 years old.

Chicago's Goodman Theatre has brought its production of The Iceman Cometh to The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, meticulously staged by its artistic director Robert Falls, and starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, among a cast of veteran stage actors all of whom are excellent in their parts.

Stephen Quimette as Harry Hope, the proprietor of the joint, is truly unforgettable in a role that requires him to rage at his customers for never paying him, and later on to quake in his boots at the thought of leaving his establishment after 20 years of being a shut-in. John Douglas Thompson, as an African American one-time owner of a gambling house delivers his monologues about racial inequality in America with an elegant pride. John Hoogenakker as a Harvard Law School alumnus is heart-breaking as a young lost soul riddled with DTs, and Lee Wilkof as Hugo Kalmar, an aging one-time anarchist, dreams of halcyon future days when all will drink champagne underneath the willow trees.

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as Hickey, the traveling salesman with a newly-found Messianic streak, and Larry Slade, a staunch Irish son-of-a-gun who patiently waits for death, but fails to be persuaded by Hickey's phony spiels, are the bastions of any production of this play. Both offer titanic performances. Mr. Dennehy is perfectly cast as the ex-anarchist who has seen too much of life, and now simply waits for the endgame from inside a bottle of rotgut. Mr. Lane, might not be physically the classic Hickey (a la Jason Robards, Jr. or Lee Marvin of famed previous productions), but his buoyant stamina, and his ability to play a cynical con-man, while entertaining drunks with a bawdy joke about the sexual peccadilloes of the iceman prepare us for his shattering monologue in the last act: the longest soliloquy O'Neill ever wrote, and the true test for any Hickey. Mr. Lane passes with flying colors.

The Iceman Cometh is about the lies that we tell ourselves in order to keep on living. In this tragedy O'Neill holds up the mirror up to nature, and in it we see ourselves experiencing a true catharsis. This play, like most of O'Neill's great works, offers us a rare chance to look at ourselves, and this marvelous production gives us a chance to learn a little more about our human condition.

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