Thursday, May 10, 2012

A TRUE REVIVAL - 'The Iceman Cometh' at The Goodman Theatre

(Photos by Liz Lauren)

The Goodman Theatre’s scintillating revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” which opened on Thursday, is not Nathan Lane’s first dalliance with the peculiarly titled EugeneO’Neill play. In the days leading up to last week’s opening, I could not help but jovially recall Lane’s swindle of an aging lady investor as the money-grubbing Max Bialystock in “The Producers”.

“I made it out just like you told me to. To the title of the play. "Cash". It's a funny sort of name for a play, "Cash”?

“Yeah? So is ‘The Iceman Cometh.’”

Lane and famous funnyman Mel Brooks, who penned the quip, were not far off. “The Iceman Cometh” is, indeed, a fiercely funny play by a notoriously cynical and pessimistic playwright, but it has never really been thought of as such – until now. This production’s newfound humor, livened in part by society’s shifting attitude towards the, once, deathly embarrassing alcoholism plaguing the residents of Harry Hope’s Saloon and by an ensemble as fluid as you will ever see in a drama of this magnitude, is not all that it seems. The generous amount of laughter handed out throughout the evening is vomited up by the audience, guilt-ridden and ashamed. One simply cannot belly laugh so frivolously at performances this full-bodied and this terrifyingly human.

Eugene O’Neill wrote his works with a deeply personal investment rarely seen in the mild-mannered dramas of our contemporary playwright's. Daring to push the form in a way resembling the Expressionsm-meets-Early Realism of August Strindberg, O’Neill was a freakish anomaly to all those hardcore Maxwell Anderson junkies. His work was mostly unappreciated by the end of his life until Jose Quintero’s revelatory production of "The Iceman Cometh" which then prompted the early first production of the author’s posthumous semi-biographical living room memoir,“Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

The playwright is still mostly lauded for "Long Day's," although, in style, itis undoubtedly his most straightforward. Quintero stuck like glue to the O’Neill canon, however, and revived the playwright’s reputation for a new generation of theatergoers. Ideally that is what a ‘revival’ should do, right? Revive. Robert Falls has dedicated his own tenure as Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre to the same noble endeavor, heralding Eugene O’Neill as the greatest American playwright. And with each production of O’Neill’s plays that Falls directs – including his sublime “Desire Under TheElms” and carefully introspective “Hughie”, two similarly disputed dramas – his argument for the playwright’s heightened stature becomes more fleshed out and increasingly compelling. Such is the case with his magnificent new production of “The Iceman Cometh”

In the weeks leading up to “The Iceman Cometh” the talk of the town was caustic rumblings about the play’s intimidating run time –just short of five hours – a length unheard of in this, the decade of the intermissionless ninety minutes. Rest assured, however, that The Goodman’s “Iceman” figuratively plays far shorter than some recent theatre marathons I’ve attended– propelled by meticulously tweaked suspense and an uncommon expectation of the audience to work.

In the opening scene, as Natasha Katz’s lights fade up, with bare minimum visibility, on ten souls dead asleep, meandering with the audience through a forlorn dreamscape, our eyes must squint until properly adjusted. It is an uncomfortable initial choice, prompting both anxiousness and relaxation, but the effect is a stark, instantaneous immersion into O’Neill’s hopeless purgatory.

A group of pipe-dreamers spend their evenings, mornings, and afternoons guzzling down liquor by the bottle here at Harry Hope’s Saloon in an attempt to quench an unquenchable thirst. Awaiting the arrival of anaffable traveling salesman, Theodore ‘Hickey’ Hickman (Nathan Lane), on the eve of Harry Hope’s (Stephen Ouimette) birthday party, they sit, sleep, and chat in excited anticipation. What arrives, however, is not the life-of-the-party Hickey they once knew and adored, but a reformed, straightedge amateur preacher, who has come to change their damaging ways. A play of tragedy, humor, and dark mystery, “Iceman” requires deft piloting to fully unleash its formidable pathos.

And deft piloting it certainly has. Director Falls has wisely brought increased attention to the skillful art of casting. The ensemble of “Iceman” represents the finest accumulation of actors I have seen on a stage this season, and also a promising resurrection of the unpredictable volatility that Chicago acting is best known for – an unpredictability ostensibly missing from our stages these past few years. A group of actors this well known and this tremendously gifted is not usually expected to find living, breathing ensemble, but the cast of “Iceman” defies hasty expectations and soars together.

Throwing around focus with grace and exactitude from one character to the next as each actor explores their own individual moments, a crop of eighteen terrific performances come to life. As Harry Hope, Stephen Ouimette, an underrated Canadian actor who in the last few years has been resigned to mostly humorous roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, acquires devastating mortality in the shaking of his voice. Named with Dickensian obviousness, Harry’s hope is defending with weakening positivity by Ouimette in the face of striking adversity.

In this hardened masculine world, three women, Cora(Kate Arrington), Margie (Lee Stark), and Pearl (Tara Sissom), though prostitutes, bring a needful purity to the saloon. Arrington’s Cora, acted with glimpses into deep wells of sorrow, represents just how ahead of his time O’Neill was –writing, with attentiveness and without condescension, a struggle of a woman equivalent to that of a man.

Every step that Brian Dennehy takes trembles the impressionable earth beneath his boots. Falls’ previous O’Neill collaborations with Dennehy have proven the two a formidable team, Dennehy having played therole of Hickey in 1990 to great acclaim. And of Dennehy’s most recent O’Neill performances – Ephraim in “Desire Under The Elms” and Erie in “Hughie” – his Larry Slade in “Iceman” is his brashest creation yet. Never before have I seen an actor so befitting the work of a single playwright. A terrifically charming fellow in person, Dennehy makes prodigious use of his craggy, Irish face. Katz’s lighting design, with as much emphasis on shadow as illumination, creates dark voids out of Dennehy’s eyes. Never sleeping like the rest of the loners, Larry stares out into the house, hardly ever being allowed the empathy of eye contact. Dennehy’s paternal interactions with the young Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews) and his suspicious sparing with Hickey burn particularly bright.

The high-profile casting of Nathan Lane as Hickeys not just a stunt, or even a caressing of a typically crowd-pleasing actor’s desire to exercise his chops. O’Neill offers vivid descriptions of his characters, and reading over the multiple paragraphs he devotes to Hickey, Nathan Lane is, plainly spoken, the man O’Neill has written. “He is about fifty, a little under medium height, with a stout, roly-poly figure… His expression is fixed in a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship,” writes O’Neill, sketching a picture-perfect caricature of the Tony-winning actor. Given that description, Lane has a steadier handle on Hickey’s amiability than his inflamed soul, but he is right on the cusp of the famous character’s vulnerability, and in interacting nightly with a company as supportive and gifted as this one, Ihave no doubt he will find it.

Kevin Depinet’s spectacularly Victorian, yet faded and peeling set, draws lightly expressionistic lines through O’Neill’s detailed stage directions – mostly through a riveting treatment of doors. Each of the four acts take place in essentially different rooms in the house with the final act occurring in are configured, Hellish vision of the first. The influx or lack of doors in any given act seems to echo the potential of the people in the room. Act III, the most enchanting of all the sets, taking place in the bar itself, and has one door far upstage leading out to the street. It is, visually, the loudest point on the stage, with the fearful wilderness being, at the same time, blinding, cold, and angelic. The fourth act has no doors - only tables and a single, unreachable window – a saddening visual metaphor for the state of affairs by the play’s end.

Unintentionally timed against this important revival, a lost 1919 play of Eugene O’Neill called “Exorcism” was just published in March. The play, ripe for study though rotten for public performance, was never meant to be found. O'Neill wanted every copy of it destroyed, but an ex-wife kept it stowed away for decades in a drawer. You see, the play depicted the author’s own suicide attempt through the character Ned Malloy. Written prior to any of his seminal works, “Exorcism” was ridiculed as a poorly crafted and creepily apparent attempt at therapy through writing. O’Neill certainly improved at building his plays with cohesion and finesse, but I don’t think the therapy ever ended.

Therapy is knowingly present in "Long Day’s Journey Into Night” through a gaunt, sensitive Edmund. And there is plentiful therapy in “The Iceman Cometh” as well – in the form of Patrick Andrews’ rebellious Don Parritt. Andrews breaks free of a brief initial anger trap, giving way to a suppressed sweetness I immediately recognized as a defining characteristic of Edmund Tyrone and Ned Malloy – other fictional O’Neills. Although Don’s story clashes factually with the playwright’s own life, the character’s fate and his troubled relationship with his mother, like the rest of the play, are written with tearful, feverish investment. The breathtaking success and fascinating new insightsof this production, I believe, spring entirely from the honor paid towards the playwright and the burdens and pipe dreams he, like these lost souls, had to bear.-Johnny Oleksinski

‘The Iceman Cometh’ by Eugene O’Neill plays The Goodman’s Albert Theatre Through June 17.