The ‘Iceman’ of Kevin Spacey

The New York Times
April 4, 1999


NEW YORK –Kevin Spacey, resplendent in black, from T-shirt to running shoes, is sitting amid the empty seats of the Brooks Atkinson Theater, watching the international scrum of lugs, louts and losers who frequent Harry Hope’s bar in “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill.

He snorts in amusement, as if startled by a line he has never heard. He throws his head back and cackles. He leans toward the actors rehearsing onstage as if eavesdropping on a particularly juicy bit of conversation, jabs his right fist up and down in the cadence of the lines being spoken, huddles with the director, Howard Davies, and then bounds toward the rear of the theater, springing off the balls of his feet like a sprinter ready for a race.

Spacey spent much of the last year in London playing Hickey in the critically acclaimed Almeida Theater production of “The Iceman Cometh ” on which the current American revival — opening on Thursday on Broadway — is based. As the salesman turned would-be savior around whom the work revolves, he must have seen, heard and mouthed every line of O’Neill’s epic bull moose of a play so often that it is difficult to imagine what he could find new and startling in a routine rehearsal. Yet the fact that he still responds intensely to lines he has lived with so long may be as revealing as Spacey gets.

A respected and prize-winning stage actor, he is probably best known for, and at times hard to differentiate from, the dark, somewhat mysterious characters –all chilly control and sheen on the surface, all menace and surprise underneath –that he has played in films. These include “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Swimming With Sharks,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Hurlyburly,” and “The Usual Suspects,” which won him an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1995.

But if there is one place where his agenda seems transparent, it is on the level of pure craft and the laserlike focus he has on acting, the theater and O’Neill’s seldom-staged epic, which has arrived amid expectations so high that they may make even him a bit nervous.

“There are a thousand little reasons why this matters so much,” he said one recent Sunday morning, picking at his French toast in a hotel restaurant in the theater district. “But basically, to be part of a production where this play gets heard and people respond to it is something maybe you do once in a lifetime.

“You know, it’s crazy. The play has everything going against it. It’s too long, it’s clunky, it’s got all its difficulties. But one reason I’ve fallen in love with it is because O’Neill not only knew these people, he loved them, and he wrote about them with clarity and with an outrageous sense of humor that allows them to rib each other and be in on their own joke. You don’t get many chances to expose people to a play like this. It’s a gift and a responsibility.”

O’Neill’s blowsy barroom meditation on hope, dreams and illusions is indeed a rare beast, a drama running more than four hours with a cast of 19 actors on one set (designed on Broadway, as in London, by Bob Crowley). The length and cost of staging it are so off-putting that its one classic rendition remains the famous Circle in the Square revival of 1956. Directed by Jose Quintero and starring Jason Robards as Theodore (Hickey) Hickman, it brought O’Neill’s work back to life and inspired the Off Broadway movement.

Subsequent versions have included Hickeys as diverse as James Earl Jones and Brian Dennehy, but few have attracted the attention of the recent production in England. The play began at the experimental Almeida in North London and earned both Spacey and Davies Olivier the Evening Standard and London Critics’ Circle awards.

“The Iceman Cometh,” written in 1939 and first staged on Broadway in 1946, recreates the world of Jimmy the Priest’s bar on Fulton Street, where O’Neill hung out, drank and attempted suicide in 1912, when he was 24. The play begins by introducing its sprawling cast of oddly likable down-and-out boozehounds who stumble onstage one by one and, for the most part, immediately pass out, while the audience filters into the Brooks Atkinson.

The characters will spin their pipe dreams in this prefiguring of both “Waiting for Godot” and “Death of a Salesman,” as they await the arrival of Hickey, a salesman coming in for his annual binge.

He arrives promising salvation through the shock therapy of truth, only to find that his own life and the experience of the barroom fraternity seem to indicate that life without illusions can turn out to be no life at all.

“The Iceman Cometh” is famously rigorous: hopeless without both a bravura Hickey and an ensemble with the seamless chemistry of a bunch of barroom drunks.

At 39, with thinning black hair, an oval face and his air of being at once imperturbable and opaque, Spacey seems an ideal Hickey, all coiled energy and high-speed verbal pyrotechnics, able to do U-turns in the middle of a sentence and switch moods without missing a beat.

He spent his boyhood in New Jersey and California. His father was a writer of technical manuals, his mother a secretary; Spacey was enough of a smoking pistol to be shipped off to military school, from where he was soon expelled. In high school in California, he found himself drawn to acting and has since channeled most of his rogue energies in that direction.

After a stint as a stand-up comic, he turned to acting on the stage, where by now he has a long history that includes the role of the older son, Jamie Tyrone, in Jonathan Miller’s Broadway and London production ofO’Neil1’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” with Jack Lemmon in 1986. {Robards played Jamie in the Broadway premiere in 1956.) Spacey won a Tony Award in 1991 for his portrayal of Uncle Louie in Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers. ”

He has tried to split his energies between theater and film, but even so an excursion into “The Iceman Cometh” struck him as wildly improbable at first. When Jonathan Kent, the co-artistic director of the Almeida, called him about doing the play, “My reaction was: ‘What? You want me to do what? ,”‘ the actor said, spitting out the word as if he had been asked to do Hamlet in Russian. “It seemed, you know, a little heady. II

But Spacey had always wanted to work with Davies, who had tried to hire him when Alan Rickman was leaving the Broadway production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in 1987. So before Spacey knew it, he was on his way to London, carrying a paperback copy of “Iceman” that is now as battered and dog-eared as an old family Bible, and that seems to have become a permanent appendage of his person.

The original plan was for an eight-week run at the Almeida, but the production proved so popular that it transferred to the Old Vic, with Spacey by then one of the producers. From that point, a move to New York seemed inevitable.

Just as the 1956 “Iceman” will always be remembered for Robards’s Hickey, this one, too, is dominated by Spacey’s part salesman, part evangelist, part con man who ultimately delivers a nearly half-hour monologue in the last act.

Tony Danza, who plays the bartender, Rocky, said a measure of Spacey’s mastery of the scene is how fast it seems to play out: “At the end, Kevin does his 25-minute speech, where my job is to hit my spot at the bar, where I land and listen. The thought hit my mind the other day, when the speech started, that maybe I needed to find a more comfortable position, because 25 minutes is a long time. And the next thing I knew it was over.”

Robert Sean Leonard, the stage and film actor who plays the young Don Parritt, said: “I don’t think you have to be intelligent to be good in a film. It helps, but it’s not essential. But I don’t care what anyone says, you can’t be good onstage, not in this play anyway, unless you’ve worked it through in your head, and Kevin has done it so well that there’s a reason for everything he does. He’s thought it out, right down to the eye contact for each speech.”

Still, as much as the character of Hickey dominates the stage, the production hinges on two assumptions. The first, by Davies, the director, was that the only good “Iceman” is a funny “Iceman.” Rather than an austere classic, Davies said, he began with the idea that the humanity of the play and the appeal of the characters flow from a rich vein of humor.

“I did this play once before with a remarkable cast in a big theater, and looking back on it, it had a slightly reverential quality,” Davies said. This time, he continued, “I knew from the start that what I wanted was a bunch of happy bums. I’ve always felt the play is very funny, and I cast it looking for actors with real comedic skills. I don’t think an actor is any good unless he’s got that anyway.”

The second assumption, largely on the part of Spacey, was that the play should be done on as egalitarian a basis as possible, just as at the Almeida, where all the actors shared a common dressing room and worked for the same fee. He has insisted that the dressing room walls at the Brooks Atkinson be knocked down, so that the cast can dress together. He also insisted that his name not be placed on the marquee or at the top of ads.

And as one of the co-producers of the New York production with the Broadway veteran Emanuel Azenberg and others, Spacey has agreed to a pay scale where everyone, including he himself and Danza, popularly known for his television series roles, work for the Broadway minimum of$1,135 a week.

The production, whose 91 performances are 90 percent sold out, extends that sensibility to the seats, with what Spacey calls “Robin Hood” orchestra prices of $100, $75 and $50 helping to subsidize a substantial number of $20 student seats for each show.

“I didn’t want to preach to the converted,” he said. “I wanted to hit an audience that might not otherwise come.”

Spacey said the collegial ethic is a reflection less of what a swell guy he is than of what it takes for both the cast and the audience to make the play work.

“I think it’s really difficult to ask an audience to listen as carefully as they have to at the beginning of Act I if they’ve been sold on the idea that they’re going to spend an evening with a single actor, and they’re waiting for him to show up,” he said. “This play is written as an ensemble; the fact that we’re all in a big romper room dressing room helps add to the camaraderie onstage. That’s how it began at the Almeida, and there’s no reason to change it now. I love being a member of this company, so we have to make some degree of effort to make sure it works that way .”

Davies has put together a cast that includes veterans of the London production and Americans. Holdovers are Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays the dispirited, failed anarchist, Larry Slade; James Hazeldine, as the cranky bar owner, Harry Hope; Patrick Godfrey, as an aging former British officer; and Clarke Peters as Joe Mott, the black gambler.

Peters, an American who lives and works in London, needed no dispensation to appear, but Spacey made a special plea to Actors Equity for his British colleagues to repeat their roles on Broadway.

Besides Danza, who starred briefly last year in the Roundabout Theater Company revival of” A View From the Bridge,” the other new Americans include Leonard, the first person Spacey recruited for the production; Michael Emerson, who portrayed Oscar Wilde in the recent highly praised “Gross Indecency” Off Broadway; the veteran Broadway actor Ed Dixon; Paul Giamatti, a young stage and film actor and the son of the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti; Katie Finneran, who was seen most recently on Broadway in Simon’s “Proposals”; and the well-known downtown performer Jeff Weiss.

As much as Spacey has lived with “Iceman” for the last year, there could be more life still. He has bought the rights to the play and is contemplating another look at it, perhaps in film or on television.

It might seem like an awful lot of Hickey and the lost boys and a prolonged detour from the main Hollywood highway. But Spacey, who lives in downtown Manhattan, not Los Angeles, clearly feeds off the energy of the stage and, film roles notwithstanding, he has never been one of the usual suspects.

He is, after all, the kind of actor who leaves the theater each afternoon after rehearsals wearing sunglasses and a knit cap, venturing into traffic on a yellow electric Zappy, sort of a motorized skateboard with handlebars. So his personal and theatrical instincts make this extended excursion perfectly logical.

“You have this great character, you have O’Neill’s language, which comes flying out of one’s mouth, and you have characters with dignity, humor and wit,” he said. “This play is just one of the mountains you keep wanting to climb. There are so many more reasons to do it again than not to do it. ”

The New York Times
April 4, 1999