Karen, Bruce, Peter, Valerie, and I saw *The Iceman Cometh* at BAM on 2/13. This was a production from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, it premiered there in 2012. Eugene O'Neill wrote it in 1939, but it didn't make it to the stage until 1946. It has O'Neill's signature combination of plain talk and holy eloquence. My favorite line: "You can't build a marble temple out of a mixture of mud and manure."
It takes place in Harry Hope's saloon and boarding house in Greenwich Village in 1912. The characters are Harry Hope, the two bartenders, ten alcoholics who live there, a young man who comes to visit one of the residents, three prostitutes who live there, and Hickey, a salesman who comes once a year for Harry's birthday. It was directed by the artistic director of the Goodman, Robert Falls, who is known for his O'Neill productions. It opened with most of the alcoholics onstage, sitting at tables, most of them asleep or passed out. It was dark in the theater, you heard the characters snoring or murmuring - - the lights very slowly came up. Karen said it was like coming into a dark room and not being able to see anything, and then gradually your eyes adjust to the darkness so you can see what's there. The grunts and snores and murky brown light made me think of the primordial ooze - - a most compelling way to open a four and a half-hour play!
The first act had a lot of elements of what is known as "the well-made play". The characters gave a lot of exposition, they gave you the lay of the land and a brief sketch of who they all are. And the set-up for Hickey's entrance was straight out of some old Sarah Bernhardt vehicle: "When is Hickey gonna get here?" "Shouldn't Hickey be here by now?" "Remember that time when Hickey..." That sort of thing. Hickey was being built up so that when he arrived it really felt like something, it was a real star entrance. The opening of the play was so quiet and still - - the burst of joy and energy that came with Hickey's entrance not only gave me chills, it made me nauseous. That doesn't happen every day.
This is an ensemble play, but Hickey is without a doubt the star of the show. This production was built around Nathan Lane, who is known for his madcap, high-energy comic roles and went at this most demanding of dramatic roles with great relish and skill. It was a truly stunning performance, one of the most impressive performances I've ever seen. Brian Dennehy was the other stand-out in the cast - -he played Hickey in a production directed by Falls in 1990. He expressed an interest in playing Larry Slade, the "Fool-osopher" - - then Lane shared his long-standing desire to play Hickey, and theatrical history was made.
This was one of the most unforgettable nights ever, and I can't decide if it was because of the play or because of the production. The play is so epic and disturbing, I've never seen anything like it. Four acts! Three intermissions! And engrossing every single moment, so beautifully crafted and brilliant. Yes, maybe Hickey's monologue in the last scene went on too long (was it 20 mins?), but I don't want to quibble, O'Neill is the bomb. I'll mention one recurring motif: O'Neill uses the phrase "pipe dream" over and over, I would guess it comes up about every fifteen minutes - - which is quite a few times in a four and a half-hour play. And each time it's more poisonous. This is great, great writing.
O'Neill isn't done as often as let's say Tennessee Williams, and it's because O'Neill demands so much of his actors, and (it must be said) of his audience. Robert Falls directed the play so flawlessly, it was effortless yet coursing with impact. The set design was spot on, especially the floor. I could not take my eyes off that floor! It was made of long planks of light-colored wood, but the thing that made it a work of art is that it was designed in a way that it led off into infinity, into a vanishing point offstage. It added to the timelessness of the drama.
And the lighting! Maybe the most poetic lighting I've ever seen. It gently and fluidly went up and down here and there, both drawing focus on particular characters and supporting the mood of the scenes. I just might write a fan letter to lighting designer Natasha Katz, and who would believe I would ever consider writing a fan letter to a lighting designer?
I've been an O'Neill fan for thirty years but had never seen one of his plays onstage! What a shanda. I'll be seeing more, you can bet on that. Next on my wish list: Cate Blanchett in *Strange Interlude*.