Possibly the most impressive thing about Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, opening tonight at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, are the audiences flocking to see it. Before the early curtain, they gather in small, apprehensive groups on the street in front of the theatre, trading horror stories of past multi-hour productions and questioning if they really have the stamina to sit for almost four and a half hours even if it is "An Event." At intermissions, the groups reform, now to discuss the remarkable performances, all thoughts of time apparently forgotten. After the play is over and into the early morning hours they still stand in front of the theatre, the smaller groups merging into one large mass, debating O'Neill's ideas, obsessions, pain, and spiritual quest as he confronts a theme which has been approached by most major modern dramatists from Ibsen and Strindberg to Beckett, Albee, Miller, Williams, and Mamet: whether human happiness depends on denial and consoling lies or confrontation with reality.
Such is the power of this production to mesmerize that this highly unusual behavior seems hardly remarkable. This Iceman Cometh is the type of theatre that must be discussed and debated after it has been experienced.
Kevin Spacey's Hickey, the salesman who returns to his old hangout, a shabby Bowery saloon, having forsaken liquor and full of a missionary's zeal to convert his old drinking buddies to sobriety with promises of true happiness and enlightenment, eager to strip them of the fantasies and defenses in which they have cocooned themselves he now believes are rotting their minds more thoroughly than whiskey, gives what can only be described as a shattering, enthralling, terrifying, and ultimately gut-wrenching performance.
He wants them to face the truth about themselves and over the course of the evening they do. But these truths do not, as he claims, set them free. And Hickey himself eventually comes to the stricken realization that his reform was also a fantasy. He is forced to acknowledge mankind's inability to bear too much reality and therein lies the tragedy. At the end, having faced his own failure, he allows them to reject him, to retreat again into their protective lies and, from there, into the drinking spree which closes the play. It's a breathtaking moment of pure theatre that sums up what O'Neill had come to believe about mankind when he wrote the play; we cannot tolerate truth, lies, self-deception, and evasion enable our emotional survival.
The Iceman Cometh is an ensemble piece with a cast of 19 actors. Not only is it a luxurious pleasure to see a Broadway stage this full, but this production is blessed with superior performances in every role. To single out individual performers, other than Spacey, for praise would quickly result in a repetitive roll-call of superlatives. However, I do suggest you pay particularly close attention to the work of Tony Danza (Rocky), Ed Dixon (Piet Wetjoen), Paul Giamatti (Jimmy Tomorrow), Robert Sean Leonard (Don Parritt), and Tim Pigott Smith (Larry Slade). You will not be disappointed.
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Howard Davies. Settings and costumes by Bob Crowley. Lighting by Mark Anderson. Sound by John A. Leonard. Original music composed by Paddy Cunneen.
This is a strictly limited run of 91 performances.
Theatre: The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036 (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue.)
Performance schedule: Monday through Saturday at 7 P.M., Saturday at 1 P.M. (Please note the early starting time.)
Running Time: Approximately four hours and twenty minutes.
Ticket price: $20.00 - $100.00 (Students with a valid ID can purchase two $20 tickets, as available, at the Box Office after 5 PM each performance day - 11 A.M. for Saturday matinee.)
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 A.M. to 8 P.M.
Tickets by Phone: TicketMaster at (212) 307 - 4100, or outside the NY metro area (800) 755 - 4000
Tickets on line: TicketMaster On Line at http://www.ticketmaster.com/
Audience: No children under the age of 4 will be admitted.
General Rules: NO smoking in theatre. NO food is allowed into the theatre. NO recording devices of any kind are allowed in the theatre, including still cameras.