Though The Iceman Cometh is generally considered one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, it did not win (as four of his others did) the Pulitzer Prize; the Pulitzer is not, after all, awarded for Sadness. Nor do the judges give extra points for difficulty, and Iceman is famously difficult on the director, the actors, and the audience. It’s not just the length, all five hours of it (though the 2012 Goodman Theater production, now in residency at BAM, is relatively swift at four hours and 45 minutes). It’s the weight. O’Neill seems to have loaded the play, which was written in the late 1930s but not produced until 1946, with a lifetime’s worth of ambition to make a comprehensive statement about the human condition. A lot of statements and a lot of humans make for heavy lifting.
That the Goodman’s production, which stars Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, is beautiful and generally exhilarating is therefore hard to explain. Nothing has been done to make it more “palatable.” It has not been significantly cut, rearranged, lightened, or updated. If anything, the director Robert Falls has emphasized its oppressively monumental architecture; each of the four acts gets a completely different look from designer Kevin Depinet (“inspired by” John Conklin’s design for an earlier Goodman production). Act One introduces us to the back room at Harry Hope’s Greenwich Village bar and fleabag circa 1915: a “no-chance saloon” that might as well be a coffin. Here, the ironically named Hope and a dozen of his fellow lost souls — a “Who’s Who in Dipsomania” that includes barmen, “tarts,” Boer War veterans, burned-out anarchists, petty con artists, a black ex-swell, even a Harvard alumnus — stuporously await the arrival of their old pal Hickey, who has always in the past staked them to a good time.
But when Hickey arrives in the form of Lane as the first intermission approaches, his infectious good cheer, which Lane turns into a marvelous carnival act, has changed. That he declines booze is the least of it: He has also, as we might put it today, stopped drinking the Kool-Aid. A terrible event, details of which O’Neill dribbles out over the course of the next three acts, has shattered Hickey’s illusions that dreams are worth dreaming, and now, like some nosy Irish Oprah on a temperance bender, he intends to improve his old friends’ hopeless lives by helping them face reality as he has. Without false hope, there is no guilt; without guilt, there is no unhappiness.
Or so he plans to prove to them: The middle two acts mostly concern themselves with Hickey’s odd social experiment, a paradoxical intervention designed to fail. He encourages one of the tarts, for instance, to marry her boyfriend, the day barman; he urges the Harvard alum, a walking delirium tremens, to seek a job at the local D.A.’s office; he all but pushes Hope, who hasn’t left the premises in the 20 years since his beloved wife died, out the door for a walk around the ward. He knows they will all return shattered, and they do; they now understand that they’ve been living on “pipe dreams” for decades. (Hope even admits that his wife was not so beloved.) Even so, Hickey’s cure doesn’t take; by Act Four they have all returned to the preferred happiness of their previous oblivion. All but one: Larry Slade, the bar’s resident “Foolosopher.” Even with him, though, the cure proves worse than the disease; it causes him to make a decision for once, the results of which lead to a death. Dennehy’s soul-scraping performance peels back Slade’s humanity to the point it seems like an evolution in reverse; with his hulking stance and Cro-Magnon profile, he is left (as O’Neill may feel we all are left) little better than an animal.
It’s a despairing vision, and it’s relentless; recall that the play was written at the start of World War II. Iceman’s idea of fun poetry is Heine’s couplet about death being better than sleep, but “best of all were never to be born.” And it’s true that O’Neill sometimes seems to be idling the engine — there’s a lot of repetition — or stuffing into the trunk every scrap of insight he’s ever had into the nature of delusion, whether romantic, economic, or political. A play that ridicules the feebleness and even the motivations of the left while all but slashing its own wrists over the condition of humans under capitalism is a capacious play indeed.
But good politics never alone made a great evening in the theater. For me, what makes The Iceman Cometh worth the enduring, and what Falls’s production so beautifully brings out, is the small-scale accommodation within the large-scale disaster. As in Renaissance painting (Natasha Katz’s exquisite lighting almost requires the comparison), the eye is drawn brightly to the center of the composition, which is usually Lane — Hickey is an obvious albeit unconventional Christ symbol — and then led around the periphery to the various reactions of the onlookers to the drama. O’Neill does not make it easy on those onlookers, but there are roles of a lifetime in this play. Not only the obvious ones, so perfectly cast with Lane and Dennehy. (Believe me, Lane’s showmanship is no mere crutch here; it’s a godsend.) The ensemble is exceptional — to name just a handful: Stephen Ouimette as Hope; John Douglas Thompson as the black former swell; Kate Arrington as the tart who almost marries; John Hoogenakker as the trembling Harvard man; and James Harms, heartbreaking especially when sober as “Johnny Tomorrow.” (Okay, O’Neill, we get it with the names.)
They and the others may not always be near the center of the action or have many lines; indeed, Lee Wilkof, as one of the burned-out anarchists, spends most of the play face down on a table. But whenever you look at them their lives are so fully inhabited they are all but overflowing. What makes this production beautiful is the way it emphasizes this often overlooked flip side of O’Neill’s despair: his love for people in extremis. (He was one himself.) Without that love, there would be no despair to despair of.
The Iceman Cometh is at the BAM Harvey Theater through March 15.