Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Goeth to Seeith 'The Iceman Cometh' -- If You Caneth -- but Taketh a Nap Beforeth

Theater Review

The Iceman Cometh
a play by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 17

With seats scarce and pricey throughout its extension until June 17, The Iceman Cometh seems to be the hottest ticket the Goodman Theatre has had in many a season.

It deserves to be. Qualitatively and quantitatively.

Iceman is a classic play by one of America's most legendary playwrights, and it is rarely staged. In Chicago, it is being directed by the Goodman's superstar Artistic Director, Robert Falls, and features a stellar cast of 18, including two of the finest theater actors ever, Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.

The set design by Kevin Depinet--inspired by a design by John Conklin for a Goodman production Falls did with Dennehy in 1990--is quite impressive, as are the 1912 period costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh.

And including four acts and three intermissions, the play runs nearly 5 hours.

So if you can snag a ticket for any price you can afford, do so. You'll get your money's worth. Perhaps even more than you need.

I certainly feel fortunate that my Sunday night subscription ticket for $20 was nearly $100 less than most of the few remaining tickets are going for through (the Goodman offers some nice discount programs, but there's probably slim pickings for this show; shame the four seats next to me were empty last night).

While my previous exposure to Eugene O'Neill--Long Day's Journey Into Night, Hughie, Desire Under the Elms, The Hairy Ape; all at the Goodman, most Falls/Dennehy collaborations--ranks him behind Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the way I regard "America's greatest playwrights," I do appreciate his stature and was very much looking forward to The Iceman Cometh.

But until I read a plot synopsis on Wikipedia the other day, I really had no knowledge what the play was about, nor even that the title really is a suggestive double entendre about the guy who home delivers ice (and has relations with one's wife). All I knew was that as Max Bialystock in The Producers--my favorite musical in which he delivered one of the best performances of any sort that I've ever seen--Lane uttered the title as a punchline: "Just make it out to cash!" "It's a funny sort of name for a play, Cash...." "Yeah, so is The Iceman Cometh!"

What I now can tell you, without wanting to give much away in case you are able to get a ticket to see it here or elsewhere, is that The Iceman Cometh, written in 1939, takes place in the bar room of a Greenwich Village rooming house in 1912. Along with the proprietor, two bartenders and three prostitutes, nine down-on-their-luck drunks hang out hypothesizing about a return to their past glories while awaiting a periodic visit from 'Hickey,' a life-of-the-party (at least previously) salesman, played here by Lane.

Dennehy is typically great as Larry Slade, a former anarchist, and is matched by the excellent young Chicago actor, Patrick Andrews, who I've previously seen be terrific in Cabaret, American Buffalo and Red. All the performers are first-rate and it was fun to see local stalwarts like John Reeger, James Harms and Steppenwolf's luminous Kate Arrington do such fine work here. Noted Shakespearean Stephen Ouimette is also superb as Harry Hope.

But the true star, in all regards, is Nathan Lane. Though more renowned for musicals and/or comedies, he demonstrates in a challenging dramatic role that--at least IMHO--there is no better stage actor working today. Dennehy, Andrews and O'Neill's gift for dialogue allowed the Laneless bulk of an 80-minute first act to flow effectively, but the show lit up--literally and figurative--when Hickey arrived in the form of Lane. And while I can imagine other gifted actors, including Dennehy in 1990, playing the role, I can't perceive liking anyone else as much.

With no disrespect meant to O'Neill, Falls or any of the other cast members, The Iceman Cometh was considerably less riveting when Lane wasn't on stage.

And without wanting to sound like the clueless emperor in Amadeus telling Mozart to take out some notes-- "which ones do you have in mind?"-- the only criticism I have of an otherwise outstanding evening of enriching entertainment is just how long it was.

Having napped beforehand, I stayed awake throughout and there are no parts I can judiciously cite as unnecessary. But should any play really have you sitting in your seat longer than a transcontinental flight?

It was excellent, but I can't deny that it was arduous as well. So even if you can find a ticket, keep the duration in mind before planning to attend on a work night.

While I followed the story pretty well, and think I might get the general gist of what O'Neill was trying to say and explore, I don't know that I completely grasped the motivations of Hickey nor perhaps some of the play's gestalt.

Also, for any O'Neillites who know this play well: Wikipedia and IBDB list a character named Pat McGloin, a former police lieutenant, who is seemingly omitted from this production. If you know why Falls might have made this choice or what it may have affected, please comment.

Noting the difficulty of finding a ticket to The Iceman Cometh at this point, it might be moot for me to offer a recommendation unless he stayeth just a little bit longer. But even without a frame of reference, I envision this is as good a production of this play one could hope to see. Unless Lane has other commitments, the Goodman staging can conceivably transfer to Broadway, where he--and perhaps Dennehy and Falls as well--should win yet another Tony.

So even if you have to go through StubHub to see a play that's longer than some mini-series, you may nonetheless--especially without necessitating a New York flight or hotel--find this Iceman too stone cold good to misseth.

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