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A Flophouse Symphony

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Richard Termine/BAM
Nathan Lane as Hickey, center, in Robert Falls’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, 2015

The texts of Eugene O’Neill’s plays are more like scores than self-sufficient works. To have a full sense of what The Iceman Cometh is, there is no way but to see it played. The text is too full of words, spoken by too many characters to visualize separately, and it is too easy in reading it to slide past those blocks of seemingly awkward elaboration—those repeated passages and constantly recurring catchphrases—as if impatient to skip to the end. The Iceman Cometh needs its pauses and its slowdowns and even its moments when the whole play feels like an enormously heavy contraption that has slipped off its base and is about to come crashing down. It needs human presences in an actual space and the sound of a human voice coming back again and again to the same point, as if this time it might arrive somewhere else. It needs the nearly five hours of stage time that it takes up in the Goodman Theater’s exemplary production, directed by Robert Falls, that is now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

Written in 1939, at a point when O’Neill was struggling with drastically worsening health and had not opened a play on Broadway in four years, The Iceman Cometh is at once a savage dismantling of delusion and a work of profound nostalgia. It is a recreation of the milieu of O’Neill’s youth set in 1912 in Harry Hope’s flophouse and saloon, an establishment very much like Jimmy the Priest’s on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, where O’Neill attempted suicide in that same year. (The resident who rescued O’Neill killed himself a year later, in a different flophouse.) Nostalgia for misery, nostalgia for delusion and depletion: it’s all there in the affectionate tenderness with which O’Neill puts his early companions on stage, letting them speak (as he notes in a letter quoted in Robert M. Dowling’s recent biography) “in exact lingo of place and 1912, as I remember it—with only the filth expletives omitted.” As the first act progresses it establishes a feeling of life continuing to swarm even in what Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy), the disenchanted anarchist and self-described “philosophical drunken bum,” calls “the No Chance Saloon… Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller!”

Falls’s production starts slow and in near total darkness, as Harry (Stephen Ouimette, in a performance that gathers steadily in strength and wily complexity) and eight of his tenants slump over their tables in the back room, and bartender and part-time pimp Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo) gets ready for opening time. The slowness and darkness are to be savored as the womb-like haven from which the characters are to be painfully and progressively evicted, before managing to find their way back more or less to the point where they began, in the paradise of an alcoholic resignation well beyond despair. The nuances of that progression are marked by constant changes of lighting, designed by Natasha Katz, that add another kind of music.

Harry’s saloon is a place where nothing happens, where everything has already been said and will be said again many times. Almost as soon as the play begins, Larry gives us a sample of a highly literary talking jag that feels as if it has already been going on forever: “To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.” We’re thus given the final curtain speech just after the curtain has gone up, along with the first iteration of a phrase—“pipe dream”—that will be echoed by every character until the repetition becomes a signal that the whole dialogue track is a kind of trance music, occasionally interrupted by bursts of lacerating self-acknowledgment.

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Richard Termine/BAM
Harry Hope’s flophouse, with Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade (center right), in The Iceman Cometh, 2015

By virtue of its theme and setting and inordinate length, Iceman has acquired a reputation for heaviness that Falls avoids by playing up the variations in tone and rhythm in each of the micro-episodes of which each act is constructed. He gets laughs often, but they are never in the nature of comic relief; the jokes belong as much to Harry Hope’s saloon as anything else that goes on there. This is after all a play that gets its biggest laugh—Harry’s declaration that “when Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland they swam to New York and joined the police force!”—moments after the most emotionally draining monologue in the O’Neill canon.

The early stages of the first act suggest a play that could go on indefinitely with no change and no end, each washed-up journalist and Boer War veteran and streetwalker and failed lawyer running through his or her fixed routine, the routines playing off each other in alternating sets, with each voice getting a solo from time to time. With a cast like the one assembled at BAM, one can appreciate the great fluidity and freedom that is built into the script, despite the artificialities of its dramatic construction. (What is being offered in this production is pretty much all the play, aside from the deft excising of one of the permanent residents of the flophouse, the dishonored policeman Pat McGloin, whose absence does no damage.)

There is no role that does not have a chance to achieve centrality. John Douglas Thompson, for example, after his peerless performance as Tamburlaine at Theater for a New Audience last fall, here makes Joe Mott, the black gambling house owner fallen out of luck, a pivotal force as he veers over the course of four acts from reminiscence of the old days to racial anger and renewed determination to humiliated pride. Robert Falls has described the play as “a symphonic work,” a notion beautifully worked out in the ensemble playing of the large cast.

Into the initially presented listless steady state comes Hickey, the hardware salesman adored for the generosity and high spirits of his semiannual binges, to initiate the grand structure of the drama. Hickey is coming, we are told; then, at the end of the first act, Hickey is here, but somehow changed and determined to change everyone else. By the second act Hickey has set the place in an uproar, mercilessly stripping away each resident’s necessary pipe dream. Hickey’s two-part strategy could only be made believable by actors capable of demonstrating its effects, as he exhorts them to do whatever they have perpetually deferred—get a job, get married, or (like Harry, who has not stepped outside since his wife’s death twenty years ago) simply take a walk in the sun—and then waits for each to fail, to complete his lesson on the emptiness of their dreams.

Hickey is more a concept than a character, but it is a concept whose energy drives the play by shaking up deep stasis into frantic motion. He is the angel of death as snake-oil peddler, Ahab with a sample case, the hollowed-out murderer convinced that his guilt is a form of moral revelation. A master salesman who can take anybody apart and bring him down to the level of Hickey’s own nothingness, he prefigures cult leaders and self-help hucksters of subsequent decades in his intuitive manipulation of other people’s personalities through a deft mix of cajoling and bullying. The demonic force of the role is reinforced to percussive effect by the constant repetition of his name, as the other characters resent and complain about him—“that damned fool Hickey,” “that interfering ass Hickey,” “that bastard Hickey,” “dat louse Hickey”—while succumbing to his influence. By the last act he has made them all living corpses, unable even to get drunk, as if he has put a curse on the liquor, as Harry Hope laments in grieving tones: “What did you do to this booze?… Bejees, you done something. There’s no life or kick in it now.” Hickey’s presence turns what might seem at first a naturalistic play into something as schematic as a folktale, with its stylized rhythms and repetitions (each of the first three acts ends with the word “happy”) and emphatically foreshadowed outcomes.

Nathan Lane’s Hickey has a droller and plumper look than some of his lean and hungry predecessors. He makes his entrance like a Broadway trouper, very much the Hickey everyone is waiting for, the glad-handing traveling salesman offering jokes, free drinks, and a slap on the back. He seems utterly harmless, the person who will give permission for everyone to have a good time—not merely harmless but a machine that’s running down, as he dozes off shortly after coming in. What Lane captures most forcefully is the adrenaline-driven huckster, the minister’s son whose only faith is his ability to see through everyone he meets. He has the heartfelt sincerity of the true phony, seduced by his own pitch. His psychological moves are all feints and fake-outs, catching people from an unexpected angle and then standing back as if he hadn’t done anything at all.

His opposite number is Dennehy’s Larry Slade, mournful and rocklike, with nothing to fall back on but his own sense of no longer being seduced by anything. Dennehy makes one aware of just how much of Larry’s time on stage is spent in utter silence, sitting apart as the others, under Hickey’s influence, start fighting among themselves; he remains a dominant force even without words. Larry has his own private drama to contend with, his surrogate son Don (Patrick Andrews) who has, it quite rapidly becomes clear, betrayed to the police his anarchist mother, Larry’s old flame. The unloving and unlovable Don—even the tolerant bums of Harry’s saloon keep him at a distance—spends the play hesitating on the brink of a preordained act of self-destruction, waiting only for the reluctant Larry to intervene by giving him the seal of approval.

The play is structured so that toward the end one confession follows another, each having to do with the absent women who hover over the final stretches—Harry’s long-dead Bessie, Hickey’s wife Evelyn whose recent death is only gradually revealed, Don’s anarchist mother. These objects of threadbare cults of memory are all, in ritualistic succession, denounced as the “bitches” who, by implication, condemned the men to their isolation. In each case a veneer of love is ripped away to show the unhealed resentment beneath. Hickey’s confession goes on for many pages of text and obliges the actor to embody a splintering of personality, as unwanted truths emerge in the midst of speaking. It is something of an exercise in exhaustion, wearing away layer after layer of emotional alibis to give voice finally to an unspeakable hatred. The disintegration of the damaged leader liberates Harry and the rest to revert to their cherished illusions, as if an evil enchantment had been lifted and everything that happened in the play could now be seen as a dream brought on by madness. They rejoice in a dissonant sing-along while Larry Slade sits apart, the only one who has actually been changed: “Be God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here.”

Undoubtedly few theatergoers have ever wished The Iceman Cometh longer. A production like this, however, instills a gratitude for the play’s length. It was only by insisting on these five hours—by forcing the spectators not merely to drop in but to spend, by the play’s chronology, two nights in his bar-room—that O’Neill could give the play its full meaning. It is all about the time spent here, the lives spent here. It was necessary to be there long enough so that, in emerging from that dark interior into the outside world where his characters never go, the sensation would be one of personal loss, as if one had left a crucial part of oneself behind.


The Iceman Cometh is playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater through March 15.