The combination of Eugene O’Neill, Brian Dennehy, and Robert Falls has yielded huge artistic returns over the years for the Goodman.
Falls’ current staging of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” raises the already-formidable stakes by tossing the star wattage of Nathan Lane into the mix. But even if you go into this long (five hours with three intermissions) Everest of a show for Dennehy and Lane, you may well come out singing the praises of one of the finest ensembles Falls has ever put together —one that will be talked about for years to come.
Lane tackles the monumental role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (played by Dennehy at the Goodman in 1990), a traveling salesman whose annual visits to Harry Hope’s hellhole saloon in Greenwich Village are a boozy beacon of fleeting joy for its denizens. But this time, Hickey is bent on destroying the “pipe dreams” that keep the barflies from recognizing the truth about themselves and allow them to imagine that “tomorrow” will be the day that they clean up, check on that job – or, in the case of Harry himself, simply walk outside for the first time in twenty years. This all sounds terribly bleak, but trust me, there are plenty of laughs along the way, too – at least for those with a taste for home truths delivered with stiletto precision.
As the four acts unfold, it becomes clear that something darker and more pernicious is motivating Hickey’s crusade to save the delusional lushes, and it all comes out in a final anguished soliloquy. On opening night, Lane’s delivery of this devilishly difficult monologue lacked the kick-in-the-teeth air of desperation required, but I suspect his performance will grow richer and more assured over the run. As it is, it’s fascinating to see Lane’s familiar musical-comedy glad-handing persona twisted to grimmer purposes as Hickey.
Dennehy, as disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade, has a hypnotic presence even in extreme stillness. As the light first focuses on him at the beginning of the show, his visage looks like a soused version of an Easter Island monolith. Dennehy’s Slade manages to be both compassionate and intimidating, especially in his interactions with Patrick Andrews’ Don Parritt, another radical on the run who tries to enlist Slade as his confessor.
But oh, that supporting cast. I found my heart breaking for each of them at various times – and identifying with their broken hearts and long-delayed “pipe dreams” with discomforting regularity. It’s impossible to credit them all, but Stephen Ouimette (a longtime vet of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival) as agoraphobic Harry deserves special mention as a man who veers between resentment of his deadbeat clientele’s never-paid bills and desperate need for the solace of their company. John Hoogennakker’s Willie Oban, a one-time law student who has descended into the dementia of the DTs is terrifying in his raw need. Kate Arrington, Lee Stark, and Tara Sissom shine as the trio of “tarts” who bring flashes of tawdry color and spark to the tomblike saloon.
Special mention must also be made of Kevin Depinet’s sets (inspired by John Conklin’s designs for Falls’ first “Iceman” production), which change drastically in each act, forcing us to re-evaluate our perspectives on this world and capturing O’Neill’s tricky blend of grim realism and stark poetic expressionism. Natasha Katz’s lighting design is almost a character in itself, with its sickish splotches of color, looming shadows, and harsh glaring spotlights all capturing the tensions between what’s hidden and what’s revealed in the souls of O’Neill’s gallery of irredeemably broken – but thoroughly unforgettable – lost boys and girls.
“The Iceman Cometh” runs through June 17 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $61-$133 (“subject to change”) at (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org.