Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" may be the worst great play ever written.
It lasts for more than four hours on a single set. It is loaded with heavy-handed symbolism. It is often awkward.
And it is quite magnificent. Approached with the courage and mastery that run through every level of director Howard Davies' production, it is an overwhelming experience.
What makes "The Iceman" great is the range and depth of its humanity. No modern play presents such a full gallery of vivid portraits. Few have such unconditional compassion for the lost and the broken.
Davies' production comes from London and retains some of its English cast. But this matters less than might be expected, for "The Iceman" is more a New York classic than an American classic.
Set in a sleazy bar on the West Side in 1912, it reflects the city's teeming, international population. Harry Hope's dive is a human Noah's Ark, where the clients float on a high tide of rotgut whisky and twisted illusions.
They are Irish and Italian, English and Boer, Scottish and American. There's a black American gambler and a Central European anarchist. But they all owe allegiance to the united states of fantasy and oblivion.
O'Neill pays attention to all of them, creating in each a subtly different kind of failure. Therefore, the play demands not just a large cast, but a deep one. There are no small roles.
And there are no small actors in Davies' superb production. For this is very much more than a star vehicle for Kevin Spacey.
Spacey takes the key role of Hickey, a brash salesman and old regular who arrives with a mission to save the denizens of Harry Hope's by ridding them of the "pipe dreams" that torment them.
It is, indeed, a searing performance. Spacey picks up on two hints in the dialogue and builds a fiercely memorable character around them.
First, remembering that Hickey is the son of a preacher, Spacey uses the insistent rhythms and sweeping cadences of a hyped-up Bible-thumper.
And he acts out the description of Hickey as a man with "something not quite human" behind his salesman's grinning charm. Spacey's streams of rapid-fire speech and cold, piercing gaze give him a sinister, alien quality that is brilliantly unsettling.
But the rest of the acting has a similar stature. Tim Pigott-Smith, for example, is quite stunning as the washed-up revolutionary Slade.
Slade, whose delusion is that he has no delusions, is the heart of the play. Pigott-Smith suggests an immense weariness broken by moments of self-hatred so unbearable that he wants to wriggle out of his own skin.
Around these two central performances, Davies controls the ebb and flow of emotions with sensitivity and grace. He knows that the play works almost like a movie, with wide shots and closeups continually changing the audience's point of view.
The wide shots are large, epic themes. The failure of the radical left. The loss of immigrant energy in a stew of corruption. The way men turn their fear of women into violence and self-disgust.
The closeups are the intimate effects of these big disasters on small people. James Hazeldine's Harry, Jeff Weiss' Mosher, Paul Giamatti's Jimmy Tomorrow, Michael Emerson's Willie, Clarke Peters' Joe and Patrick L. Godfrey's Captain reveal all the humor, rage, pity and dignity that O'Neill allowed these inadequate people.
Davies' direction perfectly catches the rhythm of the play's shifts of focus. The pacing is so precise, the playing so consistently fine, that you forget the four hours' length and become absorbed in each rich moment.
In other words, when this "Iceman" cometh, anyone who loves theater goeth.
"What kind of joint is it anyway?" asks a new arrival about Harry Hope's saloon and rooming house in downtown New York in the summer of 1912. Answers the wisest and sanest habitue, "What is it? It's the No Chance Saloon. It's Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe, the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller. Don't you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere? That's because it's the last harbor."
One of the many things the magnificent revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" gets right is the look and feel of Harry Hope's. Designer Bob Crowley presents a big, bare, brick-walled room, bar on one side and panel of changing hue on the other; the bedrooms upstairs are indicated, expressionistically, by chairs and bedframes hanging on the exposed walls.
In the middle are small tables where, at the start, a half-dozen patrons are deeply dozing. We're not in just a naturalistic bar, but at the bottom of the sea among the jetsam. Director Howard Davies will bring this sad crew to the surface. This "Iceman" is a comedy of manners - the manners of the damned - and every laugh, every flicker of life is vibrantly on display every minute of its 4-hour running time.
The key moral presence at Harry's is Larry, an articulate pessimist with a death-wish, beauti-fully acted with dingy aplomb by Tim Pigott-Smith. It's Larry who explains the joint to a newcomer named Parritt (a very fine Robert Sean Leonard).
Its losers, we learn, delude themselves that they can re-enter life and again become a lawyer, a journalist, a cop, a circus worker, a soldier, an anarchist, a politician, a successful gambler (all expertly performed).
Even the whores and pimps, like cheerful bartender Rocky (the skilled Tony Danza), are fantasists. Harry Hope's is the kingdom of the "pipe dream" where the "pipe" is not opium but booze and fake hope.
The tragically failed collective dream that haunts the play is that of the socialist-anarchist movement, abandoned by Larry and betrayed by Parritt.
There's another failed dream lurking in the corners of "Iceman" - it's the Christian dream of redemption.
For the first hour of the play's running time, everybody's waiting not for God (or Godot) but for Hickey, the man of jokes and joy and free juice. But when this flamboyantly glad-handing salesman at last appears in the person of Kevin Spacey, he's not his usual self.
Hickey is on a salvationist mission. This Hoosier preacher's son who never fell for "the religious bunk" is suddenly and strangely determined to "save" and "free" Harry's patrons from bondage to their dreams. By forcing them to act out their fantasies, he'll disillusion them.
In a truly wonderful, audacious performance, Spacey exhibits a nervous, frisky vitality - his lickety-split comic rhythms are at once hilarious and sinister. He speaks in a quick, ironic, distanced patter, his intonations dripping with sarcasm and secrecy. He's a Master of the Revels guiding his flock to hell.
At Harry Hope's 60th birthday celebration, Spacey circles the room lightly touching people and explaining his shock tactics as a way to bring "peace."
The next morning finds the gang all dressed up to venture into the daylight as Hickey idly fingers a piano. Later that night, they have all returned, stunned and hollow-eyed, back in the land of lost dreams. Now Hickey confesses the truth; he has acted not out of love for his friends but out of guilt for the love-hate slaying of his wife.
During this long unburdening, Spacey again circles his flock, this time embracing and stroking them with sincere affection, even love. There's a very long silent moment during which he decides to restore to them their dreams - redemption by lies.
This is a huge leviathan of a play, full of raw emotions and repetitions and caricatures and some unresolved feelings about women. But still it's a great play, tender and funny and wrenchingly compassionate, a tall cocktail of Ibsen and Strindberg and the tormented soul of our own greatest playwright. And this import from London's Almeida Theatre is the second astonishing rethinking this season of a 1940s play about the death of a salesman.
The silence is so taut that it hurts. It descends around 11 P.M. at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, the resounding soundlessness of a crowd of hundreds scarcely daring to breathe, much less cough or whisper or unwrap one of those notorious lozenges.
A question has been asked on the stage, the home of the new revival of ''The Iceman Cometh,'' and Kevin Spacey, playing the man who must answer, breaks off in midresponse to pause. The pause keeps growing; it becomes an ocean. And Mr. Spacey, for those wide, penetrating seconds, seems like the most powerful man on earth.
When was the last time you heard that kind of hush in a theater? That this one occurs four hours into the performance of ''Iceman,'' which officially opened last night, is a testament to the abiding potency of Eugene O'Neill's great, lumbering barroom metaphysics lesson of a play and to the hypnotic pull of this production, which arrives by way of the Almeida Theater in London and is directed by Howard Davies. In the land of the puny attention span, here is an American audience, still wide awake after prime time and hanging on to an actor's pause as though it were the edge of a cliff.
The question that inspires this moment is one of many asked in the course of ''Iceman,'' O'Neill's down-in-the-depths masterwork from 1946. By the time it is posed, the play's plot-driving mysteries, never that impenetrable to begin with, have already been uncovered, and its philosophical queries remain what they were in the first act.
But when Harry Hope (James Hazeldine), the owner of the grimy saloon where the work is set, eagerly asks Theodore Hickman (Mr. Spacey), the charismatic salesman known as Hickey, to confirm that he, Hickey, has lost his mind, it is the highest-stakes question of all. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than the ability of Hope and his cronies to go on living, not happily, mind you, but with some degree of serenity, in the state of mind that O'Neill famously summed up as a ''pipe dream.''
The finest achievement of this slightly rough but always engrossing ''Iceman'' is its complete evocation of the appeal of its characters' pipe dreams, of illusions nourished and sustained by alcohol. They are what is threatened by the arrival of Hickey, a preacher of the gospel of self-knowledge, given shimmering, scalpel-edged life by Mr. Spacey, who turns everyone he touches from a fluttering ghost into a truly dead soul.
Harry's bar may be, as one of its inhabitants puts it, ''the No Chance Saloon.'' But it is also a place of profound comfort and even beauty. A character in O'Neill's ''More Stately Mansions'' gives voice to its author's contention that existence is ''without any meaning whatever -- that human life is a silly disappointment, a liar's promise.'' Life at Harry's is the life of anesthesia, an extreme form of the delusions that let everyone get from day to day. There is poetry in pipe dreams and the soothing rhythms of a lullaby.
From the production's opening images, in which the denizens of the bar stagger to the chairs in which they sleep, Mr. Davies and his cast convey those rhythms beautifully. There's a sleepy, stylized lilt to many of the actors' movements, as though they were walking underwater. Even the spasms of delirium tremens somehow register as balletic.
Bob Crowley's majestically squalid set is a counterpoint of enclosed and limitless spaces, of gritty realism and dreamscape. The room is confined by curving panels on either side of the stage, but the bare brick walls, on which float pieces of furniture and battered luggage, stretch skyward, with the aspiration of a Gothic cathedral.
Clad in Mr. Crowley's fraying costumes, and bathed in the Scotch-colored lighting by Mark Henderson, the ensemble brings to mind a tableau of glowing drunkards by Velazquez rendered in sepia, with the melting-faced Paul Giamatti, as the aptly named Jimmy Tomorrow, at its center. In contrast, the tableau that begins the fourth and final act is a harshly lighted vision of living corpses, battered, smeared and bruised.
All of the members of this familial band of losers, from a once-brilliant law student to a trio of prostitutes who insist they are merely tarts instead of whores, are saddled with their own great lies, built on fantasies of happy, successful pasts that can always be resurrected. The bar's self-styled Jeremiah in residence, Larry Slade (Tim Pigott-Smith), growls sardonic, purple declarations about this land of illusions. A onetime political anarchist, he is now free of ideals, he says, and waiting only for death. That, of course, is a lie, too.
The talk in ''Iceman'' is long and repetitive, its symbols ponderous. On the page, it can be leaden. It isn't meant only to be read, any more than sheet music is. And it is music indeed that emerges when the people of ''Iceman'' speak.
Mr. Davies is a first-rate orchestrator, bringing out the operatic motifs in the often-told stories with which the characters entertain each other, contrasted by the abrupt staccato sounds, ranging from shattering glass to keys being flung onto a counter, that disrupt them. He also finds the sweetness, as well as the pathos, in the barflies' melodies.
Even Larry, a character usually played as a flinty old prophet, has been given a cozy, sentimental edge by Mr. Pigott-Smith. It is an approach that verges on cuteness, but it pays off when Mr. Spacey's Hickey arrives to celebrate Harry's birthday toward the end of the first act, radically altering the tempo of the evening.
Hickey is the man for whom the people at Harry's have been waiting, much as Beckett's tramps waited for Godot. And when Mr. Spacey hits the stage like a string of firecrackers going off, you understand why. Here, it seems, is indeed the one-man good-time caravan of the bar's local mythology.
That, at least, is the first impression, and it fades as soon as you look into Mr. Spacey's eyes. There is something both dead and restless behind them. When Hickey starts in on his spiel about his recent discovery of the inner peace that comes with the shedding of illusions, it has the slap of cold water. Small wonder that Harry's regulars complain that their booze suddenly has no kick.
As a movie actor in films like ''The Usual Suspects'' and ''L.A. Confidential,'' Mr. Spacey has made a specialty of intricately layered characters with a secret at their center. He was, in short, born to play Hickey, and the intelligence he brings to the role, obviously grounded in a microscopic reading of the text, is breathtaking. You can almost see Hickey's trenchant mind cicking away as he assesses those around him, shifting gears to play on their respective weaknesses.
At the same time, Mr. Spacey conjures a man who is on the run from himself. Has any Hickey ever spoken quite this fast, like a carnival barker on speed? Mr. Spacey isn't rushing toward an early curtain. He is delivering a canny portrait of someone trying to outrace his thoughts with his words. When he loses, it's not a surprise. Mr. Spacey has prepared us too well. But that doesn't make the defeat any less harrowing.
To his credit, Mr. Spacey doesn't dominate the proceedings like an allegorical Titan, as Hickeys sometimes can. He and Mr. Davies understand that ''Iceman'' is not so much about Hickey per se as his role as a catalyst. The world of the bar, which is the world at large, is the true center of ''Iceman,'' and this production never forgets that.
The cast is a mixture of actors from the London production and newcomers, and an ideal balance among them has not been completely realized. As Don Parritt, the son of an anarchist mother who carries his own corrosive secret, Robert Sean Leonard, a fine and sensitive young actor, is perhaps too much the leading man to present the requisite irritating mixture of defensiveness and eagerness to please. And the central, death-courting triangle made up of Hickey, Larry and Parritt lacks its essential grit.
Michael Emerson, late of ''Gross Indecency,'' brings a deeply haunting, German Expressionist presence to the role of a washed-up Ivy Leaguer, though he could bring it down a notch or two. Tony Danza, as the whore-running bartender, is solid if a shade too brilliantine in his mannerisms. Clarke Peters, in the risky role of the show's single black character, and Jeff Weiss are terrific as very different spinners of threadbare yarns, as are Skip Sudduth and Katie Finneran as a pair of sweet-and-sour lovers.
Mr. Hazeldine's Harry Hope is perfection. More than anyone else, he becomes the crucial barometer of the changes wrought by Hickey's proselytizing, sliding slowly from posturing misanthropy to a bleakness just a degree away from death. There is a moment in the third act when Harry, finally forced to own up to his sustaining personal lie, goes absolutely ashen and his breathing becomes labored. You're tempted to stand up and cry ''Enough!'' and demand that Hickey be banished.
That your responses can still be so keen so late in the evening says much about this ''Iceman,'' which manages to entertain even at its darkest and preachiest. O'Neill spoke of the play as representing ''a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long.'' Yet when this ''Iceman'' turns somber, it never tastes like medicine. What is served at Harry Hope's saloon may indeed be rotgut, but this production has the rich, warming flavor of single-malt Scotch.
So who says Eugene O'Neill isn't a barrel of laughs? Howard Davies' strangely exuberant, utterly transfixing new production of "The Iceman Cometh" makes a startling case for the re-examination of this landmark play. Often considered an oversized, typically O'Neillian slab of lugubriousness, the "Iceman" is here revealed as a black comedy that celebrates the vivifying light of life shining even in the bleakest depths. It's a magnificent achievement that, with an assist from the star power of Kevin Spacey, may for the first time make a Broadway hit out of the American theater's most unwieldy masterwork.
"I'll be the weak fool looking with pity at two sides of everything till the day I die!" cries the despairing Larry Slade at the play's close, but the miracle of Davies' production is the dramatic strength it finds in just such a philosophy.
With a knockout cast that infuses virtually all of the play's many characters with the warmth of real human beings, pulsating with irrepressible life even as they deaden their bruised souls with liquor, Davies and his company flood the stage with a kind of human illumination that only casts into stronger relief the deadly darkness at the play's core.
Bob Crowley's essentially naturalistic set establishes the disarmingly ungrim tone. This vision of Harry Hope's barroom is not entirely uninviting: The light is kind and golden, the furnishings humble but hardly grimy, the bar itself quaintly dressed up with faded photos. There's even a player piano. This saloon has a curious antique charm, although the tableau not-so-vivant that inhabits it is sufficiently disturbing to frighten any actual customers who might stray in.
Yet even the slumped, disheveled and half-dressed men poured into the chairs form a picturesque, painterly array. And as they swim back to consciousness, their sodden banter about booze and dreams of past and future glories takes on an unmistakably comic rhythm -- these bottom-feeders perform a kind of vaudeville of despair and delusion, each taking a turn to strut his dismal stuff before his appreciative audi-ence of fellow losers. Who knew abject misery could be this much fun?
The chronically booze-addled anarchist Hugo is played by Stephen Singer as a communist jack-in-the-box, rocketing to his feet to denounce the "capitalist pigs" whenever the fog lifts on his interior reveries of revolution. The Boer general (Ed Dixon) and the Brit captain (Patrick L. Godfrey) are a duo act, alternately lambasting each other with contempt and lapsing into loving affection.
The corrupt ex-cop Pat McGloin (Richard Riehle) and the ex-circus worker Ed Mosher (Jeff Weiss) have their own well-versed routine, playing on the sympathies of Mosher's brother-in-law Harry to win another free drink, while the black Joe (Clarke Peters) is a born performer whose ingratiating tone and sly, self-dramatizing humor provide the armor that keeps him comfortable in the society of white folks. (Peters' alternately electrifying and harrowing performance is a standout even among a stageful of superior turns.)
There's even a musical number or two, led by the ex-lawyer and Harvard grad Willie Oban in a winning, deeply felt performance by Michael Emerson as a tenderly looped youth who drags out his vestiges of refinement like a performing seal.
For this cast of characters, delirium tremens slides imperceptibly into the more beneficent kind, a good humor fed by bad liquor and the camaraderie that these remarkable actors so effortlessly and convincingly convey.
Of course, delusions pile up faster than dirty shot glasses at Harry Hope's (the name is O'Neill at his most bluntly symbolic), and the elaborate machinery of O'Neill's sometimes clunky aesthetic scheme can be heard creaking along as each character reveals the dream of a tomorrow or a yesterday that gets him through today: Willie's just about to take up the law books again; Paul Giamatti's sad-eyed, soulful Jimmy Tomorrow is going to live up to his name and ask for his old job back; the prostitute Cora (a colorful Katie Finneran) and bartender Chuck (Skipp Sudduth) are going to go legit and get married.
The ex-revolutionary Larry Slade (Tim Piggott-Smith) is the only one who's wise to the game, jeering at their hopes with bartender Rocky (a fine, robust Tony Danza) with a relentlessness that leaves one ardently wishing O'Neill's touch was lighter.
Everything to do with Don Parritt, the young man with a mystery in his past, is hopelessly stagy despite Robert Sean Leonard's gallant and sensitive work. And if I had a dollar for every time the words "pipe dream" cropped up, why, I wouldn't need to buy lottery tickets!
The playwright's bald purpose is to expose the terrible necessity of this sad assembly's illusions, but their life-sustaining properties only can be glimpsed when they've been methodically and violently yanked away. Enter Hickey, the traveling salesman whose arrival to celebrate Harry's birthday the gang has been awaiting since dawn, in the person of Kevin Spacey, the star whose participation has turned this revival into a Broadway event (it certainly boasts the price of one, with its record $100 top).
Spacey's performance in the Almeida Theater production (which this version is adapted from) swept the London critics' awards, and indeed it's a commanding, casually charismatic turn.
Spacey wraps his sardonic, machine-gun monotone around O'Neill's great gusts of language in a manner that invests them with a sly postmodern edge, but he's emotionally direct when he needs to be, as when Hickey must relive the terrible events that led him to become a dogged proselytizer for the abandonment of all hopes and illusions. Spacey's Hickey is mesmerizingly suave; he makes sympathy sexy.
But the integrity of Spacey's work goes far deeper than that. He has spoken about his belief in the play as an ensemble piece -- no name above the title, no separate dressing room.
What's onstage reveals that wasn't glib Hollywood talk: His performance is infused with the fullness of spirit that is the essence of Hickey, deluded though his expression of that feeling ultimately is. Spacey's Hickey is the most generous star performance I've ever seen an actor give.
Of course Hickey's tragedy is that his love brings with it a chill from beyond the grave. For in forcing his friends to face life without illusions, Hickey is giving them over to death.
Lest we miss the point, the hypervigilant O'Neill pounds it home when Hugo says, after Hickey has left and the balm of these boozers' dreams floods back in upon them: "He vas selling death to me, that crazy salesman!" (Speaking of salesman, it's a delicious coincidence that Arthur Miller's Willy Loman is right around the block: He, too, would be at home at Harry Hope's.)
There's no question that O'Neill sought in "The Iceman Cometh" to put forth in brutal terms a terrible vision of life as too painful to face without the balm of liquor or illusions. But Davies' adventurous imagination sees the deeper truth beneath that profoundly pessimistic view, that life is inextricably bound up in such dreaming -- they are one and the same, and there is more humor than heartbreak in that.
The denizens of Harry Hope's don't dream because they're miserable weaklings and frauds, but because they're fully human.
In giving such vividly sympathetic life to O'Neill's sad believers, Davies and his incomparable cast bring this point beautifully home. Where is the tragedy in hope, after all? It's only the dead who don't dream.