They don't talk the language of chemical addiction in Harry Hope's New York saloon — once a first-class hangout for sports, now a brutal "Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller" where the denizens have fallen as far as anyone can fall in this world, save for that one final tumble. In Eugene O'Neill's day, boozing to mind-numbing excess was seen as a character flaw, a weakness, a psychological consequence, a pastime of men who've left the field for the grandstand and find themselves damned either way.
But despite this great American drama's existential themes — its conclusions about how, when forcibly shorn of our life-enabling, self-delusional pipe dreams and made to confront the tyranny of our own reduced expectations, we're all in danger of jumping off the fire escape — bottles of alcohol are characters as potent as Larry Slade, James "Jimmy Tomorrow" and the rest of the gang. Their end-of-the-line cafe has popped up on the stage of the Goodman Theatre in honor of director Robert Falls' closely detailed, formatively rich and relentless demanding production of "The Iceman Cometh," starring the very complicated duo of Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane and a formidably intense ensemble of actors whose demons rage before you for close to five hours.
Although never explicitly referenced, there's a clash here between the modern language of addiction — which would argue that without sobriety, all else is just more delusion — and the way O'Neill's flailing clutch of mutually enabling drunks writhe and dance around the insistence of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, the dark, dangerous angel of this saloon, that they put away their pipe dreams and find peace with their own dismal reality. It's one of the main fascinating aspects of this searing evening of theater. The play, written in 1939 and deeply and profoundly understood by this director, paints as brutal a picture of the destructive power of the demon drink as any playwright ever has painted. Yet its action doesn't turn on a comfortingly simplistic drunk-sober axis. To watch "Iceman" today — a production on this level, anyway — is to feel you know more about these characters than they know about themselves, and yet have that surety constantly upended.
You find yourself wanting to tell 'em all to put down the drink first and then make a choice, for God's sake, only to find you actually could use one or two yourself. In this oft-brutal life, who's to say alcohol is not as valid a palliative as any? Not O'Neill, nor Falls, nor Dennehy's Larry, that's for sure. We see what such a view does to Hickey and those who love him.
In the ever-fascinating trajectory of a career indivisible from the city where he has done almost all his work, Falls' third production of this play arrives as he tries to pull away from his huge, high-profile, conceptual spectacles and focus on simpler human detail in the Stanislavskian tradition. You can see both sides of the man on display here — fascinatingly, this latest "Iceman" for Falls is both a fresh walk outdoors, and a comforting retreat to a previous success. That's manifest in Kevin Depinet's powerful set design (inspired by John Conklin's set for the 1990 production), which manages to be at once simple and then suddenly epic. And the inherent duality of Falls' work here — the tension between past and present — is a potent and wholly appropriate echo of what O'Neill's characters are undergoing. It is a show in sync with the text and the times, both reverent and aptly exploratory of a new, nervous moment.
Deep directorial work with fine ensemble actors is the most successful element of this production. When John Hoogenakker's soused Willie gets the heebie-jeebies, you get the shakes yourself. That's just one example. The bar is filled with these rich and haunting individual pictures, be it James Harms' heartbreaking Jimmy (a quietly magnificent turn), John Judd's seething Piet, John Reeger's atrophied old limey, Larry Neumann Jr.'s old circus man or John Douglas Thompson's Joe Mott. Thompson, whose big scene is riveting, offers an endlessly complex fusion of geniality and rage. And then there's Lee Wilkof's Hugo, a darkly comic character who barely lifts his head from the table, and you can't blame him.
The tarts are fulsome souls from Kate Arrington, Lee Stark and Tara Sissom, and the two bartenders, Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo) and Chuck (Marc Grapey) grouse their way through their amoral (or immoral) jobs pouring from bottles, trying not to get too scared themselves. Although fully realized all the way down the cast list, the detail of these characterizations is most potently on display through Stephen Ouimette's Harry Hope, a character whose personal crisis is so believable and wrenching as to dominate the third act, and a good chunk of the fourth. More than anyone else onstage, the terribly sad Ouimette shows us the warmblooded man that was, or that could still be, if growing old were only easier. It's a stunning performance.
Dennehy is no slouch here either. The veteran actor long has occupied a particular, paternalistic spot in the Falls universe, and you can see here the singular relationship between this huge onstage persona and this director, writ large on the O'Neill canvas. Falls directs his longtime muse as mostly separate from the assemblage, frequently bathing him in his own glow, part of a rich light scape from Natasha Katz. Dennehy, clad in a costume from Merrily Murray-Walsh that hangs from a frame more gaunt than we remember, digs into his increasingly Beckettian self, staring out front on most occasions, a raw picture of a man growing old and not much liking where it has left him. As Dennehy's Larry ruminates, Patrick Andrews' uncompromising Don Parritt, the young, surrogate son who has come to demand the drunk but brilliant old anarchist get back into the game, sits at his shoulder. Gnawing at him like a gnat. Dennehy keeps sinking off into some malaise, only to come roaring back into antagonistic life every few minutes, spitting out confrontational lines and grabbing attention as he sees the high cost of listening to Hickey, a visiting character beloved for his long history of bankrolling booze-ups, so much faster than everyone else.
Lane, a star name with the guts to challenge himself, has yet to find all the requisite sides of his doomed salesman. Hickey is a charmer with money, and when Lane first enters smiling , throwing dollar bills into the air, he embodies that side of his man. You believe he can sell anything, even himself. And, to his further credit, Lane doesn't hesitate to reveal the deep personal pain underneath, including one scintillating moment of personal collapse. His performance does not lack for poignancy or a dark side. One has flashes of Oliver Hardy, and then a gut-wrenching glimpse of the loneliness of the man on the road.
But this most crucial performance, at this juncture, does lack for menace and malevolence — crucial persuasive qualities that, I think, Lane could yet find within himself. These drinkers are instantly scared of Hickey, who they want to believe will care for their needs but who they feel brings danger and the scars of death. One might think of him as the dark doppelganger of the angelic Czech woman in the musical "Once." Here, we don't see what scares them so much. Lane's Hickey is too separate from the whole. It is as if he has forged a complex, intense performance all by himself but has yet to plug it into the network. Such a connection is the ongoing challenge for this gifted actor, especially if this show is to move to Broadway. "Iceman" relies on Hickey not just to be things, but to do things to others, as life and the bottle have done to him.
When: Through June 17
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets: $61-$133 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun