By Julian J. Frazin
Retired Cook County Circuit Judge . Entertainment Critic
May it please the court…
Robert Falls' inspired production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre may well be the best all-around conception of this American classic in memory. He surrounded the brilliant Brian Dennehy, playing Larry Slade, the aged and beaten one-time anarchist leader who is tired of living and afraid of dying, with what must surely be one of the most outstanding ensemble casts ever assembled on the local stage. Together they portray the forlorn bunch of dreamers and deadbeats who frequent Harry Hope's saloon and rooming house. The actors are bathed in ingenious, subtle lighting by Natasha Katz as they inhabit Kevin Depinet's evocatively dreary sets inspired by John Conklin.
The first act, which unveils these sad and wise characters, is enough to make you forget the anticipated arrival of bona fide Broadway royalty Nathan Lane in the featured role of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, the vociferous and extroverted recovering alcoholic salesman who has come to rescue his fallen drinking pals from their hopeless "pipe dreams" about their yesterdays and tomorrows and to deliver them to peace and freedom. When he does finally appear in the waning moments of Act 1, Lane does not disappoint. Calling upon all of his broad comedic skills, he lights up the stage with his winning ways.
Acts 2 and 3 get increasingly more dark and Lane gets more serious as well. And, in Act 4, when he delivers his stunning confession, revealing the secret that has caused his own conversion, Lane delivers a stirring, gut-wrenching punch. It seems every clown wants to play a Hamlet and every Hamlet a clown. Lane can be excused if he presses it a tad too hard. The play runs nearly five hours and there is nary a moment that seems wasted.
Having now seen it twice (once in London with the subversive Kevin Spacey as Hickey), I find this the author's most devastating and provocative work, which strikes me as a contemporary Passion Play.
Brian Dennehy in "The Iceman Cometh."
Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.
Twelve men lie about in drunken stupors awaiting the promise of Hickey's messianic arrival. The ringleader of the residents, Larry, espouses a Peter-like negative philosophy: "Sleep is good. Death is better. And best of all is never to have been born." Enter the guilt-ridden, young Don Parritt with his tortured conscience for turning in his own radical mother to the police. Like Judas, he eventually takes his own life. The elongated table at the opening of Act 2, at which the entire cast sits in celebration of Harry's birthday, cannot help but bring to mind most depictions of the Last Supper.
Act 3 features a barroom doorway with white light streaming in and from which the converted leave to pursue and confront their pipe dreams. Most significant is Hickey's confession in which he relates his differences with his godlike preacher-father who scared the suckers into shelling out their dough, getting nothing for something. In the end, Hickey is taken off to his own crucifixion — "the chair."
In O'Neill's personal take on religion, the apostles return as Hickey predicted, forgetting about their unfulfilled dreams. But rather than finding sobriety, without any illusions to hang on to it, the men's need for alcohol becomes even stronger. And as a solemn Larry sits apart, bathed in a pin-spot of light, glumly staring into space, the others proceed to get drunk and regale themselves in song.
Maybe O'Neill is echoing the lines of Omar Khayyam who, raising a glass of wine, exclaimed, "While you live, drink. For once dead, you never shall return. This — better than mortals can — justifies the ways of God to man."
And, on that subject, if you go to 3741 N. Southport Ave., you will find Cullen's Bar & Grill, conveniently attached to the newly renovated Mercury Theater, where Mark St. Germain's play, "Freud's Last Session" has been extended until Sept. 2. It is a thoughtful play about an imaginary meeting at the start of World War II between the atheist father of modern psychology and the former atheist turned Christian author, C.S. Lewis.
It is an exhilarating dialogue, often filled with humor, with the 84-year-old Freud basing his arguments on science and logic and the younger Lewis on the power of faith and the experience of joy. Though nothing gets resolved and Lewis concludes "it was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning." Freud responds, "It is greater madness not to think of it at all."
The amazing octogenarian Mike Nussbaum plays Freud and the talented Coburn Goss portrays Lewis in the production's extended run. Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold reprised their original New York roles in the performance I saw and were marvelous.
I rest my case.
"The Iceman Cometh"
"Freud's Last Session"