Goodman Theatre

“Goodman Theatre’s The Iceman Cometh is 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.”

The quote’s from my Critic’s Choice blurb on The Iceman Cometh, printed in last week’s issue. I don’t normally write a Critic’s Choice about a show until after I’ve had a chance to write a full-length review of it. Hell, I don’t normally write Critic’s Choices at all. But then I don’t normally participate in standing ovations, either. I did both in the case of The Iceman Cometh.

Why? The essential reason’s in the blurb: a great excess. Gloriously overwritten, Iceman tumbles and oozes, dribbles, sprawls, and steamrolls over every conventional notion of how much is enough. 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.

There are too many characters telling too many stories in language that’s much too portentous. No point can be made once; it has to be made a dozen times. At least.

And yet, far from wearing us down or boring us with his effusions, O’Neill actually seduces us with them–drawing us into his vision, into the revelation he feels so compelled to assert and reassert from every possible angle. There’s nothing random or artless about Iceman, for all its apparent waste: the play represents a concerted effort to explore a particular insight completely, and it does so with a cunning and a deliberateness and a wit that belie whatever romantic notions we may have of the poet out of control. A great Irish storyteller, O’Neill plays his heart even as it plays him. What he gives us here isn’t excess but anima–a spirit declaring its own form so as to express its own truth.

Not that Iceman’s truth is at all idiosyncratic. It’s the basic, paradoxical truth of the theater: the idea that people can’t live without their illusions . . . or with them, either. The proof is in the lost souls who hang out–and slouch over and fall down–at Harry Hope’s flophouse bar.

Everybody at Harry’s harbors some kind of pathetic dream. Willie the ruined Harvard alum maintains his Cambridge diction, while Jimmy the ruined journalist swears he’ll clean himself up and get his old job back “tomorrow.” Piet the Afrikaner and Cecil the Englishman conspire to see themselves as heroes of the Boer War; Chuck and Cora conjure marriage and a farm in Jersey. Joe tells himself he’s not black, Pearl and Margie tell themselves they’re not whores, and Rocky gives reasons why he can’t be considered Pearl and Margie’s pimp. Ed fancies himself a sly con man, Hugo pretends the revolution’s at hand, Larry thinks he’s past it all, and even Harry himself maintains an elaborate rationale for not venturing outside his bar in 20 years.

Then along comes Hickey. A salesman who goes on “periodical” binges, Hickey is well-known and even loved at Harry’s. He tells a good joke, spends good money, and throws a great party. Usually. But this time he’s different. Though he’s as jolly and generous as ever, Hickey’s not drinking. And not only is he not drinking, he’s making it hard for anybody else to take a drink in peace. Because Hickey’s seen the light. Or rather, the dark. He says he’s faced his illusions and conquered them, and now he lives free–without dreams, hopes, or pleasant lies.

Naturally, Hickey wants everyone else to do the same. He’s made it his mission, in fact, to strip each and every rummy in Harry’s of his or her grand pretense. He hectors and bullies and brainwashes them. And he succeeds. But fantasy is powerful; reality is hard; and people want to be happy. What follows is an awesome sorrow, as overwrought and beautiful as everything else in this play.

That O’Neill’s excess works so well here is due in large part to Robert Falls’s directorial restraint. Judging by his outsized, sumptuous, incredibly busy productions of shows like Galileo, Pal Joey, and even Landscape of the Body, you’d expect Falls to approach O’Neill’s epic with an O’Neillian intemperance. But he doesn’t. Just the opposite: he provides a still, simple, rather stately environment in which O’Neill’s howls can resound even more intensely. There always seems to be a game of Name That Reference being played in Falls’s shows, and Iceman is no exception–a good contestant can catch allusions ranging from Leonardo’s Last Supper to Beckett’s Endgame. But the images are always appropriate here, enriching the narrative rather than distracting us from it. James F. Ingalls’s wonderfully sculptural light, meanwhile, enriches the very bodies of the actors, endowing their forms with a narrative of their own.

Though these actors don’t need a lot of help. Brian Dennehy is an at once bluff and fervent Hickey, looking like he could take everyone else up in his arms and cure them. Larry McCauley’s Jimmy is just the opposite: rail thin, almost immaterial. Denis O’Hare’s Willie seems overblown at first, like a man in a washing machine with his d.t.’s, but the affectation pays off honestly in the end. James Cromwell is a 20th-century El Greco as Larry, while Dennis Kennedy’s an S.Z. Sakall (that little round Austrian guy in Casablanca) for the 90s as Hugo.

And so on, generally wonderful. Like I say, I stood up at the end. I wrote a Critic’s Choice. O’Neill spoke his excessive heart in Iceman, and the Goodman’s given him leave.