By Joseph Hurley
THE ICEMAN COMETH, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Howard Davies. Starring Kevin Spacey, Robert Sean Leonard and Tony Danza. At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th St.
Trying to mount a successful production of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, "The Iceman Cometh," first seen on Broadway in the fall of 1946, is a little like trying to coax an elephant across a highwire stretched above a canyon.
Director Howard Davies’s production, celebrated in London a year ago and now transplanted to Broadway with Kevin Spacey in the pivotal role of Theodore Hickman, better known as Hickey, a role closely associated with Jason Robards, makes the risky journey most of the way, and even, allowing for a few quibbles, could be regarded as reaching the far side of the chasm in reasonably good condition.
Precisely how you will respond to this "Iceman," a play that has been revived with James Earl Jones, then with Brian Dennehy, and more than once with Robards, probably depends in large measure on whether enough of you saw the last-named actor in the role. No role truly belongs to any one actor, but Robards made an indelible mark on Hickey, and no one has yet been able to erase it from memory.
"The Iceman Cometh," is, of course, the four-hour behemoth that the Irish-American playwriting genius wrote in 1939, the same amazingly productive year in which he began "Long Day’s Journey Into Night." Taken together, the two plays clearly represent O’Neill’s most towering and most securely imperishable achievements. Both plays are set in the same year, 1912.
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In 1912, O’Neill was 24 and he had completed a period of wandering a bit of the world, shipping out to British Honduras and Buenos Aires, and spending a good deal of time in a rooming house and saloon on Lower Manhattan’s Fulton Street called Jimmy-the-Priest’s, which clearly provided the setting for "The Iceman Cometh," which the playwright began when he was 51, and when his health was beginning to decline seriously.
O’Neill populated his play with a gallery of beaten, defeated men who had retreated to "Harry Hope’s bar" on the "Downtown West Side of New York City," to quote the program for the present production, obviously basing his characters on individuals he had encountered at Jimmy-the-Priest’s, and possibly elsewhere.
They are, for the most part, men who drink in the bar and live in the shabby rooms that can be rented on the floors above, seldom, if ever, venturing out into the harsh light of the outside world.
Hickman, whom the saloon’s patrons refer to as Hickey, is very much one of them, particularly during the periodic binges during which he becomes a resident of the rooming house, and appears to have as little interest in the universe beyond the swinging doors of the bar as the most broken of the regulars.
Actor Spacey never really seems to be one of the sad company of defeated men who make Harry Hope’s establishment a kind of Limbo, hanging between life and death.
For one thing, he’s too young and too clean to seem convincingly a member of the group, although, as a salesman with a private life that includes a wife, Hickey has to have a more practical connection to the world outside than any of the men who have retreated to Harry Hope’s bar as a last stop on the road of life.
But in other ways, Hickey never seems, in this staging, to really and truly belong to the group, with the result that the power he exercised over them, and their regard for him almost as a form of savior, never seem fully credible.
We are told that Theodore Hickman is the son of a preacher, and actor Spacey and his director, Davies, appear to have leaned fairly heavily on this detail, with the result that Hickey, this time out, appears to be ministering to the men in the bar, sometimes almost preaching to them from an exalted position, rather than sharing with them knowledge of a world into which they no longer venture, but of which Hickey is still, at least at times, a nominally functioning participant.
For the American reproduction, Davies retained three actors from the British version, in addition to Kevin Spacey, and Clarke Peters, a black American performer long a resident of London.
The three Englishmen in the American staging are Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays Larry Slade, the exhausted anarchist, James Hazeldine, this production’s Harry Hope, and, Patrick L. Godfrey, who plays Cecil Lewis, known as "The Captain," a veteran of the Boer War in South Africa.
Robert Sean Leonard is Don Parritt, the disillusioned, suicidal youth who may or may not be the biological son of Slade, and Michael Emerson, who recently triumphed as Oscar Wilde in "Gross Indecency," is a standout as Willie Oban, the broken Harvard lawyer, as is Paul Giamatti as James Cameron, known to the denizens of the bar as "Jimmy Tomorrow."
Others in the cast fall somewhat short, including Tony Danza, whose work as the bartender, Rocky Pioggi, somehow feels several decades more recent that 1912, and the three prostitutes, Margie, Cora, and Pearl, played by, respectively, Catherine Kellner, Dina Spybey, and Katie Finneran, all of whom seem to be speaking in the same artificial voice, which makes it difficult for them to create clearly differentiated performances.
Cork-born Bob Crowley, one of the finest designers currently working in the theater, has conceived a brick-lined concavity resembling, to an extent, a railroad roundhouse, with suggestions of the rooms upstairs, bedsteads and chairs, hanging above the acting space.
Crowley’s costumes, in general, seem appropriate to the time and place, but his rendering of Harry Hope’s battered saloon doesn’t feel right, with playing positions spread too far across the theater’s vast proscenium, requiring the actors to do a good deal of shouting.
Even in a production that falls considerably short of perfection, it’s a remarkable Broadway season in which "The Iceman Cometh," one of Eugene Gladstone O’Neill’s finest and most difficult plays, can return as a sold-out hit.
For all its faults, it’ll almost certainly be a long while before New York sees another staging of this play that has as much to offer as this one does.