Feb 2, 2015

Primed for The Iceman

Stephen Ouimette and cast in an "Iceman" rehearsal. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
I had the great privilege recently of sitting in a Chicago rehearsal room and watching the 18-person cast of the Goodman's production of The Iceman Cometh run through the entire five-hour show. They were in street clothes with makeshift set elements and some props, but I will long hold the intimate, lived-in frisson of that room with me. It will be a tough act to top, for this or any other play.

The occasion for my visit was this piece in the Times, which focuses on the seemingly unorthodox casting of Nathan Lane--both in the production's original 2012 run in Chicago, and its upcoming run at BAM--as Hickey, the salesman who's arrived at Harry Hope's bar to crush its patrons' hopes. As I wrote:
Mr. Lane’s casting may signal a departure from the popular conception of Hickey, fixed by Jason Robards’s 1956 Off Broadway turn in the role, which was featured in a TV film in 1960 and on Broadway in 1985. Mr. Robards set the tone for Hickey as a cynical, diabolical harbinger of doom, a tone that was picked up in later New York revivals: James Earl Jones’s in 1974, Kevin Spacey’s in 1999.

But casting a comic actor in the role is not such a radical idea. A former vaudevillian, James Barton, originated the role on Broadway in 1946, in a production few considered a success. And the notion is supported by O’Neill’s stage directions: Hickey is described as “a stout, roly-poly figure” with a “round and smooth and big-boyish” face, “a button nose, a small, pursed mouth” and eyes that “have the twinkle of a humor which delights in kidding others but can also enjoy equally a joke on himself.” In short, “he exudes a friendly, generous personality that makes everyone like him on sight.”

“It’s sort of shocking how O’Neill describes Nathan Lane,” [the director, Robert] Falls said. “He doesn’t really describe Jason Robards.”
A few things I wasn't able to find room for into my Times piece: For one thing, though I haven't yet seen Falls's production, I could tell from that run in the room that it was an extraordinary one, and not just because of the star casting; indeed the entire company, from John Douglas Thompson to Kate Arrington to Stephen Ouimette to Lee Willkof to Salvatore Inzerillo, is comprised actors who could each carry their own shows (and have). Also apparent, even in the rehearsal room, was that Falls has staged each of the play's four acts on a different set--and he assured me in a later interview that this is indeed a departure from how Iceman is usually staged, on a single barroom set. (That "usually" is probably an overstatement, as this behemoth of a work is not frequently mounted at all. It's been on Broadway just four times since its 1946 premiere, and in New York more or less the same number; the famous Jason Robards Jr. production of 1956 ran Off-Broadway but later came to Broadway in 1985.)

One other detail that would seem to bespeak Falls' authority as an O'Neill specialist--he has staged most of the playwright's major works, a few more than once--is that he's trimmed a whole character, the retired cop Pat McGloin. He did the same cosmetic trim in his 1990 production of Iceman, with Brian Dennehy as Hickey, but told me that no critic then, and no critic of the Goodman's 2012 production, has mentioned it. Duly noted here.

Finally, while both Dennehy and Falls recommended I check out Stephen A. Black's book Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, as well as the indispensable bio by the Gelbs, both also said I should look up an essay by Tony Kushner about O'Neill. I did, but could only find it as an entry in academic journals; I read it via a jstor hookup, and felt the world should have more access to it--it is a beautifully written essay, a definitive defense of one great American dramatist by another. So I reached out to the author, and now you can read Kushner's "The Genius of O'Neill" on the American Theatre website. Key insight:
I can make no claim for O’Neill as one of the great writers, only as one of the greatest playwrights; for these two things, writing and playwriting, are not the same, and O’Neill’s work makes that clearer than any other’s.
Honestly, I went into this assignment an O'Neill agnostic--to be fair, I haven't yet seen his greatest plays in the greatest of productions--but I couldn't have been better prepared, in reporting this piece, to become a believer.

Now, to line up child care for a five-hour play.

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