So how does it feel to sit through almost five hours of an O’Neill play set in a bar? Not half as much fun as five hours in a real bar. But then you don't go to The Iceman Cometh for fun. You go there to catch up on the regulars, so you can thank God you're not one of them.
You also go to see something timeless and relevant, but with this production, there were moments when I felt like I was watching something which was older and more primitive than King Lear. Especially whenever the thematically-relevant phrase “pipe dream” was repeated. (It’s an old theatre joke that if you do a shot of whiskey every time somebody on stage says those two words, you’ll have to be rushed to the hospital by the end of Act One.) There’s a ton of reported offstage action, like in an old Greek tragedy—I’m pretty sure every character in the play has at least one speech that goes “Hickey did this, Hickey said that, I hate the lousy son of a bitch.” And since there are like a dozen characters in this thing, it’s that repetitiveness of the identical which makes the play feel as if it's something out of the Nineteenth Century rather than the Twentieth. Especially when it comes to the words "pipe dream." By Act Three the repetition is annoying; by Act Four you’re dull to it. Which is not just bad but counter-productive, because the climax of the play depends on an audience hearing that phrase like it’s never been spoken before, hearing it with shock. So you have to figure out how to make all that obviousness a little more subtle, or this particular play is not going to work.
Does this production work? Yes and no.
“No” would include the staging (speaking of counter-productive). Maybe it’s the way everybody who’s on-stage, but not speaking, has been directed to stare out at the audience like shells waiting to be animated, but I got a distinct Beckett vibe out of this, realistic one moment and absurdist the next, like Robert Falls deliberately set the main character’s new-found view of engaged reality against a vision of surreal disengagement. Non-speaking actors aren’t participants or even witnesses on this stage; they’re just bodies which turn on when they have lines and turn off when they don’t, like they’re all extras in an episode of The Drinking Dead.
As a result of this, you don’t get to see or experience a world being created—you get the sense that Harry Hope’s bar is not a despairing community of alcoholic escape so much as it is an opium den of lost individuals, who drift in and out of drugged awareness. The lighting plot contributes to this lassitude, directing your eye to the brighter spots in the general gloom which illuminate whoever happens to be speaking now. But directing non-speaking actors to be unblinking tableau figures totally undercuts those moments when, to quote a play about another salesman, attention must be paid. Especially during Hickey’s long (long) Act Four monologue, which is hard enough to deliver to a stage full of silent actors without directing all of them to never once acknowledge the speaker’s presence until the end, a stage effect that turns what should be a shared cathartic revelation into a frantic bid for attention.
This moment is also (not coincidentally) where Nathan Lane reaches for but does not get the brass ring, in my opinion. Lane is totally the salesman side of Hickey; he works the room like a pro, he barely stops moving, he’s sharp and smart and just troubled enough under it all to let you know there’s a great big hole in the ice that he’s skating around. But when he reveals how big that hole is, the fact that everyone else on stage might as well be a statue means that he has to run around a room full of people with whom he cannot engage. And man, the best actor in the world could do that speech and still fail miserably because he’s been directed to win the attention of characters who have been directed to ignore him. In this production, it’s where the play becomes almost completely presentational, instead of representational—and the distance of everyone else on stage becomes the audience’s distance as well.
As for the other actors, when they were allowed to act and not told to just sit there like victims of Stupefyin' Jones, John Douglas Thompson’s black ex-gambling house owner was electric, Kate Arrington’s Cora was heartbreaking, and Stephen Ouimette’s Harry Hope was so good at switching between an alcoholic’s rage and sweetness that it was scary to watch—you never knew which side of him was going to come out next. And Brian Dennehy was his usual stellar self, which is even more of an achievement when you consider that he plays most of his scenes opposite the one acting annoyance in the play, for me at any rate: Patrick Andrews as Parritt, the young anarchist. Andrews pitched everything in a loud, high monotone, and came off as whining and annoying instead of desperate. Whenever he spoke, I wanted someone onstage to tell him to shut up already. And whenever they did, it was always five minutes too late. And by then I was thinking wistfully of Stephen McHattie in the ’74 James Earl Jones Iceman. (Which was beyond fabulous.)
Is this production worth seeing? Me, I found it to be engrossing without actually being moving or emotionally engaging, in the spirit of that great joke from the Spice Girls movie: “Okay, girls, that was absolutely perfect without really being any good at all.” To paraphrase that line, I would say that this production of Iceman was very well done without being as devastating as it should be. If that works for you, then don't miss it. If it doesn't, bring a flask and play the Pipe Dream Game, and when the Act Four curtain comes down, you too could be snoring like the couple in front of me.