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Chicago by John Olson

The Iceman Cometh
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Timon of Athens

The Iceman Cometh
Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane
For decades, director Jose Quintero held the title of definitive interpreter of Eugene O'Neill, with Jason Robards playing many of the O'Neill leading roles for him. Quintero's mantle has certainly been assumed in the past decade by the Goodman's Artistic Director Robert Falls, with Brian Dennehy taking on the leads Robards assumed. On that basis alone, a production of O'Neill's monumental four and three-quarter-hour, 18-character The Iceman Cometh directed by Falls and starring Dennehy would be a much-anticipated event and this production meets those high expectations. Whether Falls' unexpected and intriguing casting choice of Nathan Lane to play Hickey alongside Dennehy's Larry Slade is as successful is a more complicated question.

Lane is arguably the biggest Broadway star of our time. Though well known to the general public through his film and TV roles, he works mostly on the Broadway stage and his name above the title sells tickets. His distinctive voice and mannerisms are unmistakably all his, and when he takes the stage of Iceman about an hour into its lengthy, exposition-filled first act, his arrival is as welcome as that of his character. The down and out drunks living in Harry Hope's flophouse CIRCA 1912 have been eagerly awaiting the annual visit of the glad-handing, good-time salesman Hickey, who buys them drinks and throws a birthday party for Harry. After an act which began in total darkness, with stage lights raised ever so slowly on the passed-out drunks in Harry's back room who gradually awaken to introduce themselves to the audience, the song-and-dance-man panache that is so much a part of Hickey and the actor playing him is a welcome burst of energy and cheer. The voice and presence of this unquestioned king of the Broadway musical stage is in full view, and there's no mistaking that Nathan Lane has arrived. This is all appropriate to the character and the play, as is Lane's association with his roles as The Producers's Max Bialystock and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's Pseudolus. Like those characters, Hickey is a charmer and manipulator. If the audience assigns aspects of those two to Lane's Hickey, that's not necessarily a distraction. Lane's celebrity works on another level as well, by setting him apart from his cast mates, just as Hickey is apart from the other characters. Unlike the bar flies, Hickey has respectability—a good job, a wife, and he does not live at Harry Hope's.

When we move through the remaining three acts, though, Lane's celebrity and performance get more problematic. As the now sober Hickey sets out to "save" the others by forcing them to realize the futility of their plans to get their lives back on track and leave the comfort of Harry's hotel, there's a darkness in the Hickey character that is not an element of Lane's persona. Hickey is troubled and desperate, though trying mightily not to show it. As we get deeper into the action, Lane needs to move beyond his trademark moves and come up with something new to show us these depths in the character and respond not to Lane the performer, but to Hickey the character.

The remainder of the cast—though many of the actors are well known to Chicago audiences—is far more able to lose themselves in their characters and bring the audience into O'Neill's realism. Dennehy—a large man with a booming voice and towering presence—often plays powerful, imposing men. Here, he assumes a markedly different personality as Larry Slade. At an earlier point in his life, Slade may have been the sort of dominating figure Dennehy created in Long Day's Journey Into Night or Desire Under the Elms, but now Dennehy's Slade is a broken, spent man. He's the focus of the earliest section of the play, and I had to reassure myself that it was actually Dennehy I was watching.

I'm sure Falls can get pretty much whomever we wants to work with him—and he's gathered a stunning cast for the remaining 14 characters of significance (not counting the two minor characters who appear only briefly at the play's end). Casting some of the key roles from outside Chicago as well as from the city's estimable talent pool, he's brought in Stephen Ouimette, a regular player and former associate artistic director of the Stratford Festival, as Harry Hope. Ouimette is both comic and tragic as the proprietor of this run-down hotel, trying to maintain some sort of authority and business responsibility even as his own life is little better than that of his tenants. Ouimette's portrayal of Harry's preparation for his brief excursion outside the hotel for the first time in 20 years is impeccably timed, funny and touching. Ouimette gives clarity to Harry's brief journey from near catatonia through a brief bout of courage and finally leading the others in retreat back to the safe haven of an alcoholic stupor. Salvatore Inzerillo, of New York's LAByrinth Theater Company, is the night bartender/pimp Rocky. Though Rocky has less of a journey than the others, he acts as a ringmaster of sorts as the script cycles through the characters, and is a crucial role in the play. Inzerillo handles his duties terrifically, giving Rocky a tough, yet amiable personality even as he is threatening to the prostitutes Pearl and Margie (the saucy Tara Sissom and Lee Stark) who work for him. John Douglas Thompson is the multi-faceted Joe—the African-American gambler who pretends to be white and can switch on a dime to play whatever game will serve him at the moment.

Joe is frequently the foil of the former military men Cecil Lewis and Piet Wetjoen, veterans of opposing sides in the Boer War of 1900 between England and South Africa. The two are played by the splendid Chicago character actors John Reeger and John Judd—Reeger's character a gentlemanly and elegant if fallen Brit and Judd's a rough-hewn old Afrikaner farmer. Hope's hotel has another veteran of the Boer War—the one-time journalist James Cameron, called "Jimmy Tomorrow" for his crippling fear of tackling his problems today. James Harms gives Jimmy's anxiety a palpable and unsettling tension. Broadway veteran Lee Wilkof, playing the former anarchist writer Hugo Kalmar, spends most of the long play passed out with his head on the table, but provides sharp comic relief when he raises his head to rant at the others as "monkey-faces." The character Willie Oban, a fairly young and recent Harvard Law School alumnus, draws laughs for his drunken out-of-tune singing, but when he's shown to be a chronic alcoholic—perhaps the worst of the whole lot—the wasting of his life seems particularly tragic; John Hoogenakker nails all these aspects of this sad case. As Hope's brother-in-law Ed Mosher, the Chicago character actor Larry Neumann, Jr. hasn't a lot to do, but it's a measure of the depth of this cast that he's in this role and he convinces us of Mosher's complete conviction that he could get back his old job at the circus.

The day bartender at Hope's, Chuck Morello, has been keeping company with a third streetwalker, Cora, and they plan to marry. After Hickey convinces them to get married right away, the relationship disintegrates, at least for a time. The loss of their dream is heartbreaking—though more so for Cora, who's given a sensitive portrait by Steppenwolf's Kate Arrington. Marc Grapey is fine as the rough Chuck. The hot young Chicago actor Patrick Andrews is Don Parritt, the 18-year-old who comes to seek some sort of connection with Slade, a former lover of Parritt's mother. Andrews has gotten a lot of troubled young men parts lately (Red, American Buffalo, The Homosexuals). With his slender frame and whiny voice, he's convincingly fragile, but at points he seemed to be working too hard. He falls into a nasally vibrato that becomes mannered and actorish. He's a terrific actor and brings great intensity to his scenes—he just needs to lay back a little.

Falls' production keeps the focus on the performances, set against a spooky set by Kevin Depinet (which Depinet says is inspired by a set design by John Conklin). The grayish walls are bare, with the back room setting of the first, second and fourth acts having a Purgatorial sense. In fact, by the fourth act, the room has no visible door, suggesting a No Exit sort of eternity. For the third act set, Depinet has designed a hotel bar/lobby that stuns the audience after gazing at the simple two-dimensional set of the first two acts. The otherworldly feeling of the sets is aided by Natasha Katz's hazy lighting design. Only the realistic period costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh ground the action in reality.

For those who may be intimidated by the play's running time of nearly five hours, it must be noted that the time passes quickly—especially during the last three of four acts. There are three intermissions to allow time for stretching and whatever. As critics and scholars have noted, the ideas of the play are simple and directly stated enough that O'Neill probably didn't need to write such a long play. The pleasures of The Iceman Cometh, for me, lie not so much in waiting to see what happens next as to soak in all the great performances of these rich characters. The sheer scale of it all gives the play much of its significance. The action occurs over some 48 hours in their lives and sharing nearly one-tenth of that in real time with them, it gives a sense of living through those two days. Over that time, we see the characters develop from well-drawn caricatures into fully developed, human, if largely pathetic people. Falls' production is every bit the event it promised to be.

The Iceman Cometh will be performed through June 17, 2012, at the Goodman Theatre, 165 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Ticket information is available online at www.GoodmanTheatre.org, at the box office, or by phone at 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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