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Nathan Lane excels in Goodman’s gorgeously dark ‘Iceman Cometh’

‘The Iceman


◆ Through June 17

◆ Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn

◆ Tickets, $61-$133

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Updated: June 5, 2012 11:24AM

Think of it as a great awakening. You hear the chorus of groans, snorts and snores first. And only then, out of an otherworldly half-light, do the alcohol-ravaged bodies that inhabit Harry Hope’s skid row saloon gradually begin to take shape. Slumped in their chairs in various states of semi-consciousness, this room full of men might well be gathered for the most down-and-out of Last Suppers.

This is how “The Iceman Cometh,” Eugene O’Neill’s epic verbal opera of existential dread, begins in director Robert Falls’ gorgeously realized, crystal clear, meticulously cast (and, were it not so monumental in scale, Broadway-ready) production at the Goodman Theatre. And this is more or less how things end, too, after its characters “sing” their tragicomic, eerily mesmerizing siren songs for a solid four acts and 4¾ hours, during which time is simultaneously stretched and foreshortened. And if O’Neill’s play brings to mind “When We Dead Awaken,” the title of an Ibsen play about lost lives, it also captures the sense of humans — dreaming of life but flirting with death — found in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.”

So what is “The Iceman Cometh” about? Nothing less than the great questions: What keeps man (and this IS an intensely male-centric play) alive? Is it the truth, or the lies that some call “pipe dreams”? Do we crave freedom, or do we want love, which O’Neill sees as a form of enslavement and the great inducer of guilt? Is it action that fends off death, or is paralysis the best life-extender? And just what is the nature of happiness, anyway — and is anyone capable of achieving it?

How do you hang your tattered hat on THAT sort of storyline? For O’Neill, the trick is to gather more than a dozen lost souls in a gritty New York bar and flophouse and watch as they welcome the anti-messiah. He arrives in the form of a Midwestern-bred traveling salesman and good-time, free-spending visitor, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane, in a blistering, revelatory performance). At first he seems to be peddling the message of self-liberation, but in many ways he turns out to be the Grim Reaper. The son of a preacher, Hickey is the shrewdest of evangelists, and Lane, who soars in each of his grand, aria-like “sermons,” preaches what turns out to be a twisted gospel that suggests you can only set yourself free by murdering what you love most.

Watching intently as Hickey spreads the word is the tormented Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy, who played Hickey in Falls’ first go-round with “Iceman” in 1990). Once a fervent syndicalist-anarchist, he has long since become disillusioned with any “movement” that claims to help people, though his comical bourgeois revolutionary sidekick, Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkof), still belts out the slogans. Nevertheless, Slade’s past catches up with him in the form of Don Parritt (a fiercely anguished Patrick Andrews), who may or may not be his son, but for whom he refuses to serve as a father.

Acting as indulgent host to them all is the generous but fear-filled proprietor, Harry Hope (a pitch-perfect Stephen Ouimette), who is of a piece with these impotent, dream-sodden men who quake at the notion of relinquishing their room keys as they try to navigate the world outside. They include: Willie Oban (galvanic work by John Hoogenakker as a self-destructive young lawyer); Joe Mott (a powerhouse John Douglas Thompson as the black man who, in O’Neill’s remarkably candid look at racism, knows precisely when he is and is not accepted in the white world); Piet Wetjoen (John Judd) and Cecil Lewis (John Reeger), perfectly ridiculous as they continue to fight their own personal Boer War; James Cameron (James Harms, spindly thin and ideally addled as a former war correspondent); and Ed Mosher (Larry Neumann Jr. as a tricky ex-carny and moocher).

Tending bar are Rocky Pioggi (big, burly Salvatore Inzerillo), who pimps on the side with his streetwalkers (Tara Sissom and Lee Stark), and Chuck Morello (Marc Grapey), who only entertains the notion of marrying his prostitute girlfriend (Kate Arrington, too beautiful by far, but emblematic of O’Neill’s madonna/whore view of women).

The play moves from the initial awakening, to the crazy 60th birthday party Hickey throws for Harry, to a brief odyssey by some of the terrified men into the blazing light of day, to a return to the shadowy safety of the saloon, where a tiny, prisonlike window suggests a Beckett interior.

Falls’ 1990 production of “Iceman” at the “old” Goodman Theatre has long lingered in my memory. But the precisionism of this version, with its incisive orchestration and strikingly high-definition portrayal of each character, suggests the grand payoff from his two decades spent exploring every facet of O’Neill.

Kevin Depinet’s set, though “inspired” by John Conklin’s original, takes the play into a grand new dimension, with its exquisitely hellish colors and dramatic shifts from flatness to stunning deep perspective. Natasha Katz’s breathtaking lighting evokes both Caravaggio and Edward Hopper, and Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes are an ideal mix of genteel rags and period spice.

The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon compulsively trumpet “The Tomorrow Movement,” though they know all too well their tomorrows are, at best, long-lost yesterdays. Yet here is the great irony: They could not be more vividly present than they are in “Iceman.”

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