Slowly bobbing the knee, twirling and pointing his shoe, Brian Dennehy demonstrates, in The Iceman Cometh–now playing at the BAM Harvey Theatre until March 15–the circadian rhythms of the lost. Folding his hands, putting a hand to the forehead, chin, and mouth—he might scratch an arm or put two fingers under his nose. It feels like more than simple, naturalistic movie acting, though: we’re watching a behavioral circuit that can break at any moment (maybe he's also musically conducting the ensemble). "What's below the surface" is what we're getting: The actor tells us his “rage is right there–all you have to do is kind of open a spigot and there it goes.” In this megalithic play, typically known as a cold, mechanical example of Modernism–made of lead–or Ibsenite construction and mechanics, no one, apparently, thought to slow it down, to let it breathe. Now, at almost five hours, this slice of life, set on the bottom rung of New York's Bowery, seems fatalistically human.
The director Robert Falls, whose production originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2012, says that “This play is facing the most existential terror imaginable.” By this, he may mean wanting to die but being too afraid to—this is why Dennehy, as Larry, tells us he can barely move. Falls closes in on various aspects of the emotional and physical terrain—along with the deeply examined set by Kevin Depinet (inspired by a set design by John Conklin); lighting by Natasha Katz; and costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh)—and finds Beckett, Strindberg, and Thornton Wilder there (particularly, David Cromer's interpretation of Our Town, which also originated in Chicago). The gloom is authentic to O’Neill, though, a Nobel-winning playwright (the only U.S. dramatist to have won). He has gone in and out of fashion—sometimes called clunky and slangy–and he always seems on the brink of being forgotten. Will this production finally make it clear that this would be impossible?
The actor Nathan Lane says that O’Neill is the American Shakespeare, due to “the rhythm, the language, the emotion, the complications. . . . [The Iceman Cometh] is an elusive, confounding, magnificent beast of a play.” Insightfully—and amazingly, for those who have an image of Jason Robards in their minds, regarding the role of Hickey–Lane discovered that he was “right” for the psychotic music man or A.A. sponsor or prototype of a guru ready to ring in the dawn of the human potential movement (to no avail). O’Neill’s description of the character is as “a stout, roly-poly figure” with a “round and big-boyish” face, a "button nose” with eyes that “have the twinkle of a humor which delights in kidding others but can also enjoy equally a joke on himself.”
Lane enters in a straw hat, throwing play money—we’ve been waiting for him (and he offers an important counterbalance to Larry and does not overact). If he is what O’Neill wanted—or perhaps if we are overfamiliar with the part–the drama will seem revelatory. In a sea of gargantuan miniatures, all deeply felt and finely acted, Dennehy is the one who galvanizes our attention most, because he seems to be taking acting into a different dimension, splitting technique into attoseconds. He talks so quietly in the darkness at the beginning, you’ll wonder if those in the balcony can even hear him. He holds the head of the teen Parritt (Patrick Andrews), and we’re shocked by the invasion of space and its intimacy. When he lashes out at Lane, we haven't realized he’s even been listening. Dennehy is a ruined Dagda, heavy chested with an enlarged brow, unable to give anything to anyone. Like Parritt—who is looking for a father—we keep expecting the older man to give more, though—entertain us more: something we assume that actors—especially with the crowd-pleasing Lane on hand–will want to do. Anathema to Dennehy’s character, perhaps his withholding is part of what rivets us.
Dennehy has said, “All O’Neill plays are about the same thing: The difference between the reality of the soul, of the personality, and the charade and the persona that his characters develop.” In The Iceman Cometh, we witness the soul's reality.
The Iceman Cometh
By Eugene O’Neill; directed by Robert Falls; sets by Kevin Depinet, inspired by a set design by John Conklin; lighting by Natasha Katz; costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh; dramaturgy by Neena Arndt; production stage managers, Joseph Drummond and Melissa Chacón. A Goodman Theater production, Mr. Falls, artistic director; Roche Schulfer, executive director; presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer; and Scott Rudin. At the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; 718-636-4100, bam.org. Through March 15. Running time: 4 hours 45 minutes.
WITH: Patrick Andrews (Don Parritt), Kate Arrington (Cora), Brian Dennehy (Larry Slade), Marc Grapey (Chuck Morello), James Harms (James Cameron), John Hoogenakker (Willie Oban), Salvatore Inzerillo (Rocky Pioggi), John Judd (Piet Wetjoen), Nathan Lane (Theodore Hickman), Andrew Long (Moran), Larry Neumann Jr. (Ed Mosher), Stephen Ouimette (Harry Hope), John Reeger (Cecil Lewis), Brian Sgambati (Lieb), Tara Sissom (Pearl), Lee Stark (Margie), John Douglas Thompson (Joe Mott) and Lee Wilkof (Hugo Kalmar).
Press: Sandy Sawotka.
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© 2015 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photograph: Salvatore Inzerillo (standing), Lee Wilkof, Patrick Andrews, Brian Dennehy. Credit: Richard Termine.