THE BLOG

First Nighter: Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy in O'Neill's 'Iceman Cometh'

02/12/2015 11:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Can a great play also be not entirely good? And before you answer that, please put aside any objections about the adjective "great" being overused as well as far too unspecific.

I ask this because the question kept wandering around my head as I watched and listened to--and watched and listened to and watched and listened to--Robert Falls's 2012 production of Eugene O'Neill's (classic?) The Iceman Cometh for Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It's finally reached the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

There's no question in my mind (although it may be a definite question in other minds) that the play is grand. It's seriously demanding. It's on to something crucial about the so-called human condition and has to be reckoned with when so many other plays aspiring to its scope don't have to be.

But at four acts and nearly five hours, it's repetitious, bombastic, single-minded and, worst of all, out to make a point about universal behavior that O'Neill may not prove outright as much as he contrives to prove it.

Before getting to all that, however, it's important to say that Falls has built a sturdy version of a unique tragedy. Lane and Dennehy give, as would be expected, fully committed performances. Direct from his master-class comic spin in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play, Lane--often looking like Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats--is giving an especially head-turning change-of-pace interpretation. For his part, Dennehy in yet another O'Neill role, is just about the polar opposite of the James Tyrone he was in Falls's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The same welcomes can be issued to the other 16 members of the cast, many of whom seize the opportunities O'Neill gives them to take focus for short or longer periods. From time to time, a few of them occasionally seize those opportunities too aggressively, but when they do, that's just another instance of a patron's not being able to look away.

Okay, now down to O'Neill's brass tacks and brass rail. As any theater lover, let alone any O'Neill partisan, knows but others may not, The Iceman Cometh--written in 1939 but not produced until 1946--takes place entirely in Harry Hope's bar on Manhattan's Bowery. If the gaudy clothes that the three women haunting Harry's wear is any giveaway, it unfolds sometime in the 'teens.

Since it's the Bowery as the Bowery was then (but is almost no more), proprietor Hope (Stephen Quimette) is a drunk when "alcoholic" wasn't a word in common expression and Alcoholics Anonymous was a couple of decades in the future. Hope plays sometimes welcoming, sometimes caustically inhospitable host to a mixed drink of drunks. To a man and woman, they're a bunch of colossal losers who know what they are but make life acceptable for themselves by pretending they don't know.

Into their midst for a two-day stretch to celebrate Harry's sixtieth birthday comes traveling salesman Theodore Hickman (Lane), whom they all know as "Hickey" and address accordingly. A good-time guy in the past who threw money around, Hickey rolls in this time looking to his cronies like a changed man. He's spouting a new philosophy--or "fool-osophy," as the pursuit is travestied a couple of times in the volumes of dialogue. (Arthur Miller may have only been able to use Death of a Salesman as a title because O'Neill didn't.)

The burden of Hickey's many-times-reprised anthem is that the peace he claims to have found results from abandoning the pipe dreams by which he'd been living. What he doesn't at first disclose, though, is how he came to abandon his own pipe dream. Instead, he spends the following hours encouraging each of those gathered to abandon theirs.

His soused friends range from pub-bound Harry, who believes he can take a walk around the block; to Cecil Lewis (John Reeger), who believes he can get an old job back; to day bartender Chuck (Mark Grapey) and streetwalker Cora (Kate Arrington), who insist they mean it when they say they're about to get married.

Shortly, Hickey's goading begins to anger his targets. They adamantly deny they exist on liquor and pipe dreams. They turn on him and on one another. (The many arguments and reconciliations are reminiscent of what occurs within the Tyrone family during Long Day's Journey Into Night. Incidentally, at one point, Hickey talks about being happy for a while, which is no less than a close paraphrase of what Mary Tyrone says at Long Day's Journey Into Night's fade-out.)

As O'Neill constructs his masterpiece(?), the most effective act is the first, which is actually presided over by highly irritable Larry Slade (Dennehy), a fizzled-out anarchist constantly declaring he wants to die while sitting alongside aging fellow traveler Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkof). This tippler only wakes up intermittently to shout dated political slogans. Slade is also nagged at by young Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), who alternatively loves and hates the mother for whom Slade has feelings he won't divulge.

O'Neill sets the dingy act-one mood by slowly revealing the zonked-out denizens one by one. (The depressing atmosphere is further established through Kevin Depinet's shallow and appropriately depression-green set and through Natasha Katz's dim-then-less-and-less-dim lighting.) Only then does Hickey arrive in a burst of energy.

With the following three acts unfolding as if they were a searchlight seeking out the corners of an uninhabited hovel, Hickey eventually seems to succeed in his goal. Depinet concocts a different room for each act, although as Hickey finally bares the grim explanation for his change by way of a lengthy fourth-act monologue, the final room appears more surreally downbeat than convincing.

Hickey's confession has to do with the joke he's frequently told his erstwhile pals--each one back under Harry's roof and again clutching his or her pipe dream. It's about catching his beloved wife Evelyn with the iceman. It's a joke that now loses it bluster, its luster.

So here's the dramaturgical rub. In act four, when every one of Harry Hope's lost souls is at a table with a glass and a bottle readily accessible, it looks as if Hickey was right about the inexorable hold pipe dreams have on all of us. The ending is precisely what any astute, or even somewhat astute, observer knew was coming.

But is it true? Or as the drama passes slowly, has O'Neill contrived it to be convincing? (One exiting theater goer I overheard curtly commented, "If the words 'pipe dream' were dropped from the play, it would be 45 minutes shorter.")

O'Neill is writing about humanity's desperate need for illusions (without ever invoking the word), but is he entirely right about no one's ever being able to live without them? Or is he writing, as he also does in Long Day's Journey Into Night, from an extremely personal perspective he wasn't inclined to examine?