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Review: `The Iceman Cometh’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.

Thank heavens it did not take more than one season

for Howard Davies’ acclaimed London staging of Eugene O’Neill’s "The

Iceman Cometh" to cross the Atlantic. The extraordinary accomplishment

of Davies, the associate director of the Almeida Theater and the Royal

National Theater, and the outstanding performances of his sterling

19-member cast (which retains five Brits from the London production),

make the more than four-hour drama fly by. With the added glory of

Kevin Spacey (who received the Olivier, London Evening Standard, and

London Critics Circle Awards for Best Actor) as Hickey, this masterpiece

of depression, delusions, and dreams soars with breathtaking dramatic

highs, even as it dives into the depths of its hypnotic humors and

despairs. Believe me, the time spent at the Brooks Atkinson Theater

is worth every part of the $100 top ticket price.

Whether or not you are a devotee of O’Neill, you will be compelled

to stick with this massed assemblage of forlorn beings as they immerse

themselves into their ritualistic bacchanal of brooding and booze.

All 19 actors have been placed under the spell of Spacey and Davies,

whose combined authority, both seen and unseen, magically and majestically

connect to crystallize what could have easily been seen as overwrought

and extended melodramatics.

Until Spacey, as Hickey the interfering reformer, made his belated

entrance in Act One, the dreaming alcoholics, who periodically rise

on celebrated cue from their bottled sleeps, reminded me of a drunk’s

version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in "Alice in Wonderland."

And what glorious madness it is, as we are willingly mesmerized by

these stupefied habitues of a seedy East Side downtown New York City

bar. The year is 1912.

Although the play itself revolves around Hickey goading

his former cronies into facing the truth about themselves, it is the

sublimely textured and complexly layered truths that Spacey and the

supporting acting ensemble bring on stage that turn the often stilted

dialogue of O’Neill’s netherworld into a creation of profound richness.

Certainly the characters’ as well as the playwright’s personal angst

is perceived and personalized by everyone on stage. Even as Spacey’s

speeches, purposefully long-winded though they are, stunningly propel

Hickey through his evangelically destructive course, so do all the

actors provide the revelatory currents of desultory humanity in this

wasteland of colorful talk and enervated behavior.

That some of us retain and cherish our memory of Jason Robards’ standard-setting

performances as Hickey, in 1955 and again in 1985, only allows us

the advantage to reach with Spacey even further into the nature of

O’Neill’s most self-reflective protagonist. No stranger to O’Neill,

Spacey made a strong impression as the alcoholic older brother in

a production of "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" starring Jack

Lemmon. Already a Tony-winner for Best Featured Actor of 1991 for

"Lost in Yonkers," and Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of

1995 for "The Usual Suspects," Spacey, with his riveting performance

as O’Neill’s king of the barflies, may be heading for a 1999 Tony

on June 6.

Without the need to harp back to the late, great Jose Quintero’s arguably

definitive staging, there is evidence aplenty in Davies’ freshly invigorated

staging to make what could unfold as a caricatured still life of stoned

and despondent derelicts into a living canvas of lost souls. The mood

is intensified with Paddy Cunneen’s original and haunting background

music that acts as dramatic segues. If the supporting players all

wallow and wax so eloquently in their gilded miseries, it is because

the play has received the meticulous direction it deserves.

Images that will not soon be forgotten include James Hazeldine, as

the short-tempered, self-enshrined proprietor of Harry Hope’s Bar,

as he attempts to go beyond the door of the establishment to which

he has exiled himself since the death of his wife; Tim Pigott-Smith,

as Larry, the one-time anarchist, as he ferociously unleashes torrents

of cynicism as a defense against death, and the swaggering Tony Danza,

as the tough-talking bartender and pimp.

How could I not consider the equally memorable contributions of Robert

Sean Leonard, as the guilt-struck stoolie who broods in the corner

like a young Laurence Oliver; the unbalanced countenance of Michael

Emerson, as the former Harvard law student unable to pass (literally

and figuratively) the bar, and the eruptions set off by the terrific

Clarke Peters, as a belligerent, distrustful black drunk. Paul Giamatti’s

poignant portrayal of the loser referred to as "Jimmy Tomorrow,"

would strike me as the most heartbreaking were it not for the performance

of Katie Finneran, who was standout as the brassy and pathetic Cora,

the principal among a helping of semi-ravaged tarts. Harry’s Bar,

as evocatively designed for melancholia by Bob Crowley, and is indeed,

a place where dreams come to die. So don’t despair if you to doze

a little (I didn’t) like Harry’s other patrons. The iceman will come

often enough to wake you up. HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

The Iceman Cometh, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47

Street, 212-307-4100. $50, $75, $100.


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