At four hours and 45 minutes, “The Iceman Cometh” does not seem like the type of show that would attract anyone except the most dedicated theater enthusiasts among us. Yet hundreds file into their respective seats in the Goodman amid excited murmurs that seem to emanate from everywhere. The very air crackles with anticipation and as the lights dim, hushed exclamations of excitement escape the lips of many. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the appearance of Brain Dennehy and Nathan Lane (who does not show up for another hour), the leader of this cast of 18.
Most of said cast is made up of the scruffy band of drunks that inhabits “the No Chance Saloon, Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Café;” in short, the place that this group of once-ambitious men have found themselves when they have nowhere else to go. The society is comprised of Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette), the proprietor of the saloon; Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy), an ex-anarchist who has come to drown himself in a bottle and ignore ancient emotional wounds; and Rocky (Salvatore Onzerillo), the night bartender who insists that he is not a pimp, despite the girls he helps manage, among others, all who once had potential. While Larry, the appointed “fool-osopher” of the assembly has lost all hope, that shining beacon, the promise of tomorrow, their personal pipe dream, remains for the rest of them.
And there lies the central conflict. Lane, portraying Hickey, the charismatic traveling salesman who is a favorite of all in the bar, drips enthusiasm as he explains to his friends that he is no longer drinking, and instead has visited on this occasion to “save them all.” At first skeptical, the group soon discovers that this is not, in fact, yet another joke that the wisecracking Hickey is trying to pull over on them. As the play progresses, their mutual love of Hickey morphs into a mutual hatred against him, as well as each other. Fights erupt, both verbal and physical, and the degradation of their peaceful stupors as Hickey pushes them to accomplish their pipe dreams now, instead of later, makes for some incredible displays of acting.
Harry Hope, ironically named, loses all belief in his ability to accomplish his personal pipe dream- a walk around his ward- and other characters follow suit. And the audience begins to lose hope that the characters will ever leave their motivational lassitude, or even their bar stools, long enough to make a change. But director Robert Falls never lets the production feel as if it is dragging. Briskly paced, the play’s slow moments are always interspersed among ones of chaotic excitement, and strike as deeply poignant. The consistent perfect delivery of humor in the play showcases the directorial guidance that keeps the play just light enough so as not to make the audience feel as if they are watching a constant emotional breakdown occur before their eyes.
Falls acknowledges: “It is no secret that I regard Eugene O’Neill as the greatest playwright that America has produced so far,” and this is apparent in his interpretation. There are few directorial choices that bring the work of the director to the forefront, as opposed to that of the playwright. No character dominates either script or staging, no sets distract from the performances, no issues appear so repetitively as to hinder the production’s success. In “Iceman,” we truly find a work of artistic sacrifice–the pure relinquishing of grand artistic license in transforming a script, for the often quieter, minimalist approach of letting the work speak for itself. And for this, I respect Robert Falls more than I ever would have had he changed “Iceman” into some ostentatious theatrical production that took away from the gritty and frequently darkly humorous depiction of human existence that O’Neill portrays.
Perhaps that is what is so appealing in the first place. The production is not hopeful, that much is obvious, and in the end, hardly anyone seems to have made progress toward bettering themselves; in fact, nearly every character is more entrenched in their delusions than before. When we go to the theater or films, we often expect escape to a new place where things more interesting or diverse happen than in our own lives; most of these end hopefully, or with an important message about life that we would all be advised to know. But here is a production that puts on no such airs of pretension. Each character, struggling with his or her personal failures or pipe dreams, seems too real, too eerily familiar, too depressed to really inspire hope in anyone. And it is refreshing. This trait has been seen less often in modern literature and theatrical works than it was in the classics of the past–“Death of a Salesman,” etc.–which is a true shame.
The thing that makes these works so enticing is their blunt realism. The protagonist whose grandiose longings prevent him from interacting successfully with those around him challenges the morally defective reality that his peers reside in, and encourages them to do the same. In the end, the romantic is defeated, due in parts equally to his own history or failures and the nature of his surrounding society. His stubborn refusal to alter idealistic expectations leaves him, in the end, on the same level as those he was attempting to save.
This by no means is suggesting that the themes contained in “Iceman” and works like it are any less valuable or applicable than those in plays like “A Christmas Carol,” where everyone learns their lesson in the end and we all go home feeling warm and fuzzy inside. You’ll still take something away from “Iceman,” even if it may not be the feeling that inspiring and wonderful things happen in the world. Maybe it will be as simple as an appreciation for quality theater, or as sophisticated as the dangerous nature of pipe dreams and a more thorough understanding of 20th century writers’ works. But either way, nothing will change the fact that the production you witness is beautifully interpreted and heartbreakingly realistic, featuring all that makes a show continuously breathtaking. Stellar performances, sets that look as if they could actually exist somewhere (Kevin Depinet, incredible work), and an attention to detail in all aspects of the production that is simply not seen in other works–these are the makings of a legend.