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