Iceman Cometh, Broadway Receiveth

A kind of miracle is happening on Broadway. It is home again to Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. All three are playing simultaneously–as they used to a generation and more ago, before the Great White Way became a tourist mecca for family entertainment, before Disney. So all isn’t lost?

I happen to believe that if you produce a great dramatist in a desert, people will find him somehow. There has always been an audience for serious drama on Broadway, like a starving man invited to a rare banquet. But to see the three Founding Fathers of American drama lighting up the marquees on Broadway again is an astonishing moment in modern theater history. And all three of their plays are about a tragedy of the American Dream.

The savage prison life of Tennessee Williams’ newly discovered 1938  Not About Nightingales is as much a drama of lost souls as the self-deluding barflies are in O’Neill’s 1939 The Iceman Cometh . And Iceman ‘s con-man evangelist Hickey, arguably the ultimate salesman in American theater, is surely a blood relative of Willy Loman, mythic failed salesman of the American Dream.

God protect me from Iceman ! The play scares me to death. I do not care for it–in the sense that one wouldn’t care to have terrible suffocating nightmares. (But we have them, anyway.) Iceman stifles me and exhausts. It flattens us, as if crushed by some unstoppable boulder rolling over us, again and again, without mercy, save for minor compensation in the clamor of a drunken song.

It is said that one doesn’t attend an O’Neill saga such as his Wagnerian 5-hour Strange Interlude ; one enlists for it. At 4 hours and 15 minutes, Howard Davies’ production of The Iceman Cometh is testing enough. Worse! Here we have one of the masterworks of the century which at the same time is messily repetitive–well over 20 nagging references to its pipe dream theme, lest we miss the point. Its structure can be clumsy, dramatically telegraphed, ponderous. “Get over it, you long-winded bastard!” Harry Hope, the good-natured bar owner, shouts at Hickey telling his relentless story of his marriage, and we laugh to ourselves because we share his impatient protest.

The long evening (with two intermissions) has its inevitable tedium–as would the company of desperate flophouse drunks in any hellhole of a saloon. Yet for all its blatant rough edges that we sense O’Neill hammering obsessively into shape and imperfect form, Iceman is an overwhelming tragedy of self-delusion, as if God had gone missing along with salvation.

“What is it?” says Larry Slade sardonically, defining the lower depths they have all come to. “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. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows …”

Larry, the former romantic anarchist, has a nice line in bitter irony: “It’s a great game, the pursuit of happiness.” Iceman owes a debt to Maxim Gorki and Henrik Ibsen, but its dark humor of despair anticipates Samuel Beckett. After all, the habitués of “The Palace of Pipe Dreams” are waiting for Hickey, their unexpected Godot, or savior.

To their utter disbelief, Hickey arrives newly sober and reborn, an evangelist of temperance. He has seen the light! Hickey, the hardware salesman, sets out to sell salvation by persuading his old drinking buddies to face a boozeless reality without the illusions and pipe dreams of a better tomorrow. But Hickey himself, we learn, is living a terrible lie–he killed his wife–and the truth he’s selling is death.

In effect, the revivalist Hickey is an Angel of Death. The drunks of the “No Chance Saloon” choose the half-life of comforting booze and self-delusion to the oblivion of sober reality. “All we want is to pass out in peace, bejees!” cries Harry Hope. But if that were all there is to Iceman , it wouldn’t affect us so deeply in its hopelessness.

It is an awesomely dark play. O’Neill, via Hickey and his rock-bottom characters, is actually telling us that self-knowledge kills. It does not free us; it disgusts us. He is saying that even the emptiest illusions are preferable to facing the truth about ourselves. Life itself cannot be redeemed. Because life is unlivable.

Was ever a bleaker message delivered from the stage? It’s why, with regrets, I can’t regard the new Iceman production and Kevin Spacey’s central performance as ecstatically as many others have. My regret is over the good intentions of everyone concerned. But I believe that Mr. Davies, the director, is mistaken in his belief that Iceman is essentially “funny.” It is extraordinarily humane, but does it really flow from “a rich vein of humor,” as he told The New York Times ?

I’d say its vein was of the blackest blood. Of course, there’s humor in it, and the spiky camaraderie of washed-up drunks is a form of beleaguered brotherhood. But I believe the source of Iceman is in its pain. Mr. Davies, on the other hand, has said: “I knew from the start that what I wanted was a bunch of happy bums. I’ve always felt the play is very funny, and I cast it looking for actors with real comic skills.”

It is as if the production has its own pipe dream–the illusion of an easier-to-digest tragedy. Was that why one or two of my colleagues were glad to note admiringly that the evening “flew by” (despite its length, of course)? Or why the audience found Iceman ‘s pathetic characters frequently amusing? Yet this young character at the bar, a betrayer, wants permission to kill himself; that aging one hasn’t set foot outside since his wife died; he’s a near mad mystic hoping to drink himself to death; and that deluded one believes he can begin life all over again.

The key to Iceman isn’t in its humor, but in the Heinrich Heine poem to morphine that Larry Slade quotes:

Lo, sleep is good; better is death, sooth,

The best of all were never to be born.

The new production is compromised by its lightness–just as the entire ensemble uncannily looks the part of O’Neill’s derelicts and Bowery bums, but the bar itself is too clean. Some of the performers play too broad. (The shrill stage hookers; Tony Danza’s “typical” bartender, Rocky; Michael Emerson, the Oscar Wilde of Gross Indecency , too much of an actorly turn as the fallen Harvard lawyer.) Others in the 19-member cast are magnificent–Clarke Peters’ scarily authentic black gambler, Tim Pigott-Smith’s Larry Slade en route to schizophrenia, and James Hazeldine’s tremendously sympathetic Harry Hope are three of the standouts in the committed cast.

I never saw Jason Robard’s legendary Hickey and there are those who claim the role that belongs to him has now passed to Kevin Spacey. But for me, Mr. Spacey’s performance is all on the slick surface of things. Perhaps this is the way with salesmen, and Mr. Spacey’s fast talk has surely broken some world speed record. He understands Hickey’s fake warmth and his coldness, possessing the eyes of an assassin. He is a slight, coiled figure–a dangerous glad-hander. But there is no variation in him, and no terror. In Hickey’s

ultimate collapse and confession, Mr. Spacey’s tears are too easy, not hard won. It is as if he’s still selling himself to the end. Hickey’s marathon final scene of overwhelming elemental emotion fails to touch us as it should in O’Neill’s compassionate search for absolution.