Sunday, March 1, 2015

Epic Drama in Every Sense of the Word

Review: The Iceman Cometh

Nathan Lane (center) and the cast of the epic drama The Iceman Cometh at BAM

The unabridged, nearly 5 hour production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh currently playing the Brooklyn Academy of Music isn't for the faint of heart. Director Robert Falls' production, previously seen during a sold out, record setting run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is one of the most lovingly crafted and fully realized stagings of this epic length drama you're ever likely to see, and the phenomenal cast headlined by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy is unlikely to be equalled anytime soon. Which unfortunately means that any slow spots in the production (and there are a few)have to be attributed to the play's Pulitzer Prize-winning author, an undeniably great playwright who's well-known verbosity occasionally crosses the line here.

The play is set in a rundown New York City bar and boarding house, peopled by a varied assortment of drunks and layabouts who all harbor dreams of making something of themselves, although these dreams always seem to take a backseat to the group's desire to drink. The play's many denizens are gradually introduced over the course of the overlong first act, which is beautifully staged on Kevin Depinet's simple but evocative set (simple but evocative is an excellent description of the production philosophy in general). Everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hickey, a traveling salesman renowned for his jokester persona and generous bankrolling of the gang's alcoholism. But when Hickey finally makes his appearance, it quickly becomes clear to his friends that something has changed, and his previous happy-go-lucky attitude is now leavened with a more sinister undercurrent.

Those who aren't already familiar with Iceman probably shouldn't know much more than that, as much of the play's tension comes from trying to figure out what's motivating Hickey and reconciling the man we've been told about versus the man we actually see. But even those intimately acquainted with O'Neill's script will still find great pleasure in watching the subtleties of Hickey's interactions with the other patrons, especially as expertly embodied by this outstanding ensemble. Nathan Lane brings his sad clown routine to new heights as Hickey, simultaneously inviting and chilling as the enigmatic salesman. Lane is so charming that it makes his emotional manipulation and eventual abuse of the other characters all the more disconcerting, and his tour de force performance of Hickey's Act IV monologue (which takes up a large portion of the play's final hour) is Shakespearean in its scope and depth. Lane is best known for his multitudinous comedic gifts, but Iceman is yet another reminder that he can play grand tragedy with the absolute best of them.

Meanwhile Brian Dennehy, a longtime interpreter of O'Neill's work, is fascinatingly complex and opaque as Larry Slade, a former anarchist and the character most suspicious of Hickey's new attitude. World-weary and obstinate to a fault, Dennehy's Slade is perhaps the most complex and nuanced person in a play full of such characters, whose unassuming demeanor gradually morphs into a quiet strength as the rest of the cast slowly unravels around him. Dennehy completely disappears inside his performance, letting us see Slade in all his glorious contradictions, giving us a character whose outward strength is a mask for a deep-seated doubt he can barely hold at bay.

But Lane and Dennehy aren't acting in a vacuum, and it cannot be overstated how absolutely stellar the entire cast is. Everyone delivers utterly convincing performances, and even when tasked with sitting in silence each and every actor manages to convey volumes about their character's thoughts, feelings, and general state of being. The play's long length ensures that everyone gets several big moments, all of which hit with a conviction and weight so staggering you cannot help but become engrossed. Stephen Ouimette is devastating at bar owner Harry Hope, who endures the brunt of Hickey's mind games with a gradually escalating paranoia that is heartwrenching to watch. Patrick Andrews is excellent as young Don Parritt, a deeply conflicted former anarchist who seeks out Slade in hopes of advice and sanctuary. And as the most sympathetic of the three prostitutes staying at the saloon, Kate Arrington is a knockout.

So complete and convincing is every performance that you genuinely believe these characters have existed in this same bar for years, living richly detailed lives we are lucky enough to get a brief glimpse into. Falls has expertly orchestrated his cast into creating the kind of complete living, breathing world that every stage production strives for but only a select few achieve. This is an expertly executed production that makes a strong case for O'Neill's play as THE great American tragedy, albeit one in need of a few trims. It is a staging that is sure to be talked about for years to come, and those with the patience to sit through nearly 5 hours and 4 acts will find plenty to admire and appreciate. If you're going to make the trek to Brooklyn for theatre, The Iceman Cometh is as compelling a reason as any.

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