Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Margin Notes: The Iceman Cometh

Nathan Lane and cast as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman.
Photo by Richard Termine.
The Iceman Cometh

Seen on: Saturday, 2/14/15.
Ticket purchased: Full price
My grade: C, with a full acknowledgement that I just don't like O'Neill as a writer. (and an extra side acknowledgement, that my seat was directly behind a very wide column and this is a five hour play) Great design though.

Plot and Background
Harry Hope's saloon plays host to the dregs of humanity - here, men (and a few women) come to rot, nurse their pipe dreams, and whatever drinks they can bum off the bartenders or proprietor. As they play opens, most of the characters sit slumped over tables, awaiting the arrival of popular traveling salesman Hickey, who blows into town every year for Harry's birthday, a roll of cash in hand, and bankrolls everyone's drinks. This time, however, Hickey shows up sober and with a mission - to save his friends from their pipe dreams, from their refusal to know themselves. Although he remains mysterious about his catalyst for most of the play, he claims that his final epiphany of self-knowledge, his abandonment of his pipe dreams, led to a sudden pure happiness he wants to share with his friends. They receive this news with resentment, though each eventually gives it a try - and ends in despair. Eugene O'Neill wrote Iceman in 1939 and it was first performed seven years later, after he'd lost the ability to write due to illness. This production, much of the cast in tow, transferred to BAM after a much-lauded 2012 run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play in high school and hadn't cared for it. I remembered the gist, if not all the particulars, of the plot. I was persuaded to catch this production anyway, as I heard it was a game-changing performance for Nathan Lane's already varied career.


Play: I just don't like this play, you guys. I'm sorry, I don't know what else to say. I tried to find more interesting analysis of the cast and design (I did love the design) below, but the play itself ... I just don't understand why it's a classic. Most of the characters don't feel like characters - they're cutouts, each reciting their pipe dreams in their turn, then subsiding back into their seats as the next character takes over. The degree of despair and denial is palpable, but that alone is not enough to make it a play (nor to make it one I have much interest in seeing). Perhaps if the anticipation of seeing Hickey had seemed like an actual driving thing, the disappointment of what he brought on his arrival would have been more detectable. Instead, everything just drifted along, act to act. It's a horrible non-plot full of non-characters with just a dour world view. Why are we watching this?

Cast: Brian Dennehy gave a solid and heartfelt performance as the stubborn ex-anarchist Larry Slade, determined not to let Hickey win. He found nuance in even the bluntest of dialogue and was one of the few among the ensemble who appeared to still exist even when not speaking. Stephen Ouimette, in a flavorful performance as proprietor Harry Hope, was mercurially morose and spiteful. Nathan Lane, the other big draw besides Dennehy, was definitely treading on new ground in terms of his past stage work, though I didn't find him entirely successful as Hickey, the salesman turned savior. His charisma cannot be denied, nor his perfect mix of comic timing and almost-hidden weariness. His work through the first three acts was strong and engaging; however, when it came to his long monologue in the final act, the coherence rather disintegrated. Maybe that was the point, but unfortunately, it meant I started to tune out. The rest of the ensemble was adequate but unspectacular - a menagerie of slurring stumbling men (and three women) who turn off when it's not their turn.

Design: Kein Depinet's set, inspired by John Conklin's design, was probably my favorite part of the production. Though we never leave Harry Hope's saloon, the space constantly morphs - from a narrow corridor of tables; to a seamy paper-chained banquet room for Harry's birthday; to the main bar room, spacious, but with swinging doors leading to a brightly-lit and terrifying void; and finally to a cavernous pit, each despairing character sitting solitary at various tables, with one high, unreachable window in the back. The design tread the line confidently between realism and metaphor, with a subtlety that belied the overstated text. Natasha Katz's lighting further helped illustrate the isolation of the characters, often lighting each scene only barely at first, with a gradual decrease in gloom, and pulling to a tight bright focus on Hickey at the close of each act as he insists he just wants people to be happy.


Running: now playing at BAM Harvey Theater (Goodman Theatre) - Opened February 12, 2015. Closing: March 15, 2015
Category: straight play
Length: 4 hours, 55 minutes, including 3 intermissions

Creative Team

 Eugene O'Neill
Director: Robert Falls
Designers: Kevin Depinet (Set - inspired by a design by John Conklin), Merrily Murray-Walsh (Costume), Natasha Katz (Lighting).
Cast: Patrick Andrews, Kate Arrington, Brian Dennehy, Marc Grapey, James Harms, John Hoogenakker, Salvatore Inzerillo, John Judd, Nathan Lane, Andrew Long, Larry Neumann, Jr., Stephen Ouimette, John Reeger, Brian Sgambati, Tara Sissom, Lee Stark, John Douglas Thompson, Lee Wilkof.

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