Eugene O'Neill's Iceman is a masterpiece of excess.
Eugene O'Neill's Iceman is a masterpiece of excess. Credit: Liz Lauren

When Robert Falls staged The Iceman Cometh at Goodman Theatre in 1990, I raved about it here in the Reader, calling it “great. Excessively great. Great in its excess. Four and a half hours of an obsessed poet named Eugene O’Neill, doing everything any dramaturge would tell him he absolutely can’t do and coming out of it standing firmly on his two dark, transcendent feet. If this were just a play it would be wildly misshapen and repetitive and wordy; but this isn’t just a play: It’s the truth. And therefore perfect.”

Guess I got a little excited.

I can’t say I’d express myself that way now, if only because I have no idea what I might’ve meant by “two dark, transcendent feet.” Still, with Falls’s mighty new revival of the same play to refresh my memory, I can’t say I was wrong, either. The Iceman Cometh really is a masterpiece of excess. Again, as I wrote in 1990, “Do most dramas take a little time at the start to set up the premise and introduce the players? Iceman takes forever. Do most dramas provide a big final moment for the protagonist? Iceman’s final moment is enormous. . . . No point can be made once; it has to be made a dozen times. At least.”

What I didn’t seem to notice back then is how funny O’Neill’s 1946 opus is. I mean, down-deep, existentially funny. As harsh, bleak, and haunted as it can get, Iceman is a comedy at heart—an epic variation on the familiar guy-walks-into-a-bar gag, with a killer punch line.

Only a good chunk of time has to pass before the guy actually walks into that bar. O’Neill spends the play’s first 70 minutes or so doing the theatrical equivalent of a slow pan across the back room of Harry Hope’s saloon, circa 1912, acquainting us with the great clan of lost souls taking refuge there. We’ve got Willie the Harvard-educated lawyer, Ed who used to run a concession at a circus, and Joe the black “gamblin’ man” who once had a betting parlor of his own. There’s one contingent of “tarts”—Pearl, Margie, and Cora—and another of Boer War vets, including former correspondent James (nicknamed “Jimmy Tomorrow” because that’s when he plans to get back to work) and a pair of adversaries-turned-pals, Cecil and Piet. Old anarchist agitators Hugo and Larry have a table of their own, where the former passes out between rants and the latter makes a show of welcoming death. Then there’s Harry Hope himself, who hasn’t set foot outside the premises since his wife died 20 years ago.

All these folks have two things in common: an unslakable thirst for alcohol and a pipe dream. Which is really just one thing, since the pipe dream has to stay soaked in the alcohol to survive. Jimmy’s got his notion about getting his reporting job back. Cecil imagines he’ll return to London. Cora the tart kids herself she’s going to get married and take up farming. Even Larry’s fatalism is a kind of pipe dream, his way of giving shape to his days and staving off fear.

The play starts in the wee hours of the morning. Harry’s regulars have sleeping rooms upstairs, but none of them wants to go to bed for fear of missing out on the moment when the guy walks into the bar—the guy being Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, hardware salesman and partier extraordinaire. Each year Hickey shows up for Harry’s birthday and treats the whole gang to a festive bender. This being Harry’s 60th, they’re looking forward to festivity on a whole new level.

And sure enough, when Hickey finally shows, he’s (a) literally throwing around fistfuls of money and (b) Nathan Lane. The initial flash is so bright it hurts your eyes.

Trouble is, Hickey has sworn off both booze and pipe dreams and made it his personal mission to force the others do the same. His efforts and the misery they cause constitute the comic movement—the scherzo—of The Iceman Cometh. In the end, O’Neill hands us all a great, grim, painful laugh.

With his sad-eyed ebullience, his hail-fellow angst, Nathan Lane was born to play Hickey. And, sure enough, he’s marvelous. All glory to Nathan Lane. But this Iceman is overwhelmingly an ensemble triumph. In the last Goodman main-stage show, Camino Real, director Calixto Bieito put strong actors in abject situations and ended up creating what came across to me as an atmosphere of abuse, as if the point were to belittle the cast members themselves. Here, too, some of the company have to abandon their vanity in order to embody their roles—after all, this is a play about ruined old alcoholics. And yet this time they’re ennobled in the process. John Reeger’s Cecil, in particular, falls into that category. But we also get brave, unselfish work from Brian Dennehy as Larry, Stephen Ouimette as Harry, and James Harms as Jimmy.

John Douglas Thompson, meanwhile, is a play in himself as Joe the black gambler. O’Neill’s speeches for this angry, wounded character are stunning, especially considering the period in which they were written, and both Falls and Thompson make fierce use of them. In another bravura performance, Lee Wilkof finds both the clown and the car wreck in befuddled radical Hugo.