Tim Pigott-Smith’s The Iceman Cometh Diary

15 February

“Hey, I gotta ask,” says the guy in customs, laughing at my visa, “what is this? Icemen Nice Woman pic? What the hell kinda work do you do?”

“I’m an actor. I’m doing a play on Broadway. Icemen Nice Woman is the name of our production company.”

He wants to be impressed. “What’s the name of the play?”

The Iceman Cometh

“Well, I sure hope the Nice Woman Cometh also. Please go through.”

We finished Iceman at the Old Vic on 1 August 1998 -an unforgettable night. People were leaning out of the galleries. The stage was bombarded with flowers. Since that time it has garnered a crop of awards for the director, Howard Davies, and Kevin Spacey. I had a nomination for Best Supporting. Huh. And here we are, after months of expectation and wrangling with American Equity.

It *is* a wonderful town. In 1974, I played Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes on Broadway. I’ve been back many times, and it’s always thrilling, but it’s more real somehow to be back here working again. We made it. Kevin Spacey never doubted we would. I was not quite so certain….

18 February

After a couple of days in which to settle, I start looking for an apartment and my rehearsals begin. It’s nearly a year since we rehearsed at the Almeida and this rollercoaster of a production at last returns to its natural home. Set in the Lower East Side, it was first staged here in 1946. The famous Jason Robards revival of 1956 was directed by Jose Quintero. He came to see it in London, and had the generosity and grace to say ours was the definitive production.

No Kevin yet – the “Space Captain” is filming in L.A. Today, there are just four of us, including Robert Sean Leonard {Dead Poets’ Society, Much Ado About Nothing), with whom I have my main acting relationship, and Howard Davies. We dive straight in. The new guys are good: a relief. I find I’m able to enjoy the new cast without feeling disloyal to my English colleagues who didn’t get through the Equity net. …We are working on stage -the set has been built so we can rehearse in situ. This is a Broadway first, and very helpful.

19 February

There is good news: we rehearse with a much fuller company, and more talent appears.

And there is bad news: we can no longer rehearse on stage. The stage hands’ union does not wish to establish a precedent. It’s like England in the Seventies. I hope the backlash here is not as destructive as it has been at home….

22 February

We have a fuller cast. Tony Danza from Taxi joins. We’re on a marked-out stage at the Neil Simon Theatre, and the set is dark. Silly or what? Kevin arrives, and there’s a buzz in the theatre. He carries his stardom naturally. Today, he is friendly, funny, fast and on-form – as always. He holds the book but hardly bothers with it. The other American actors are also very well-prepared. The understudies sit diligently in the stalls, watching, noting.

My Kevin story: when Kevin was in his teens, his mum and dad took him to see London theatre. He stayed in a hotel in Gower Street, and gazed longingly at the students going into Rada. [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] He saw our Sherlock Holmes at the Aldwych. On that night, the set fell on me – literally – like the Buster Keaton house-facade gag. I was lucky not to be hurt.

When we were in the dressing-rooms at the Almeida, Kevin started recounting the incident, not realising that I was the actor on whom the set had fallen. He recalled the ad-libs that the incident occasioned with absolute clarity: when the set had been righted, and I emerged from the chaos, I called for the butler – to help clear up some broken furniture. That got a laugh. The butler came in and said “A trifle windy out tonight, sir.” That got a laugh. I replied “Yes, Parsons, we should never have moved to Kensington.” That got a round. When I congratulated Kevin on the accuracy of his memory, and he learnt that I had been playing Watson, he looked like a kid. Funny old world.

Strangely, there is a line in Iceman, Hickey, to Larry (Kevin to me): “You’re not so good when you play Sherlock Holmes.” For a laugh, in rehearsal, Kevin sometimes adds, under his breath, “You’re a much better Dr. Watson.” I am foolishly proud of this story. I don’t know why

23 February

The read-through. Before we read, the main producer talks to us. Emmanuel “Manny” Azenberg is a charmer. He talks about the rarity of legendary productions such as this ..

Having done a bit of work beforehand, the new company are clued-in to the approach and the read-through takes off like none I have ever been to. The play is astonishing, the language is so rich … The characters are so strongly-drawn – most of them from people O’Neill knew…

The dialogue coach isn’t worried, thank heavens. She’s spotted a few give-aways, but guess I’ll make it through to the press night …

From now on it’s tough. Rehearsals are often like this. A read-through can provide a sense of fullness of a play that isn’t experienced again until you get it in front of an audience … Even at its most positive, the play is emotionally draining. And long. My character is one of two who don’t leave the stage. This means I rehearse all day every day. In performance we go on stage before the audience comes in, at 6.50 pm. The curtain comes down at 11.15-ish. You can imagine what matinee days are like.

By the end of the first week, we are up to schedule. Howard is doing as he did in London – working fast through the play to give people an idea of its size and journey. It is one of those plays that gives you problems when you work it slowly. If you can find the courage to fly at it, it comes easier. It’s unnerving for the Americans, but it’s exciting.

1-7 March

The Americans drop their scripts almost entirely – a feat for such an enormous play. They are not only clever, they are exceptionally hard-working, and also courteous. Several of them call Howard “Sir”, which we just don’t do in England. To us it sounds almost sycophantic, but for them, it’s automatic. The hard work and the etiquette are indicative of another system – the ruthlessly commercial theatre. Being fired is rare in England. Here it’s part of life.

The company’s background, and their familiarity with O’Neill, means they get the the heart of it much quicker than we did. The area they find harder is the manipulation of language … different culture and training. Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Emerson are finely tuned, highly intelligent and experienced stage actors. Others have to fight the curse of their naturalistic experience in movies and TV.

Among the cast are some extraordinary characters with life stories which could be movie scripts. Tony Danza … Jeff Weiss…

We work through the play with increasing thoroughness. The overall atmosphere is very light, full of jokes. Tony asks, “Did you think I was too petulant in that bit, Sir?” Skip Sudduth, who plays Chuck, the other barman, says “Petulant, huh? See what workin’ with Brits is doin’ for him? Used to be a boxer. Now he’s usin’ words with three syllables.” This is not unlike the relationship between Chuck and Rocky. By the end of the week, we have gone through the whole play in some detail. Good going.

Extraordinary news. Just heard that Jose Quintero died on Friday. Disproportionately upsetting…

8 March

The box office is open to the public and the lobby is crammed all day. And we are back on-set at last. Kevin’s been on the case. After two bouts of negotiation,  he’s managed to persuade the stage hands’ union that relaxing the rules for a four-and-a-quarter hour play from England, with a cast of 19, and the set already built, is hardly likely to establish a precedent. We begin working from the top again. This is an arduous time – beginning to rehearse chunks of the play. Acts. Act one lasts roughly one hour twenty. It’s tough. It becomes very clear which bits are working and which aren’t. The atmosphere remains high-octane. Slowly we nail the bits that are evasive and slog on up the mountain.

11 March

Six of us have a photo-shoot for The New Yorker magazine … Afterwards, I tell my driver to make a detour and drive me along Lower West 12th – the street where Harry Hope’s saloon in the play was situated. There were a lot of Irish bars in the area at that time. The street is still cobbled, if a little elegant now. The Lower West Side in 1912 was tough and dirty; garbage was piled high on the sidewalks before the city had a sanitation department. I have always had an image in my mind for the line, “This place does a fine trade from the market people across the street, and the waterfront workers.” Now I have a real picture …

As if he didn’t have enough to do, Kevin is shooting a movie in the evenings. His energy is unstoppable. He’s working on an idea to have a period advertising sign flashed on to part of the set above the proscenium arch to get people to switch off their mobile phones. It was a curse in London: 25 went off in the course of the play. It’s worse here: Elizabeth Franz – who plays the wife in Death of a Salesman – told me that during her breakdown towards the end of the play one evening, a woman got out her phone, dialed a number, and said “yeah. It’s nearly over. There’s about two minutes to go. So you can bring the car round. OK?” Help.

Kevin’s also having the dressing rooms re-organised so that we can have the same share-and-share-alike as at the Almeida. He could have a room to himself if he wanted to, but he recognises the value for the play of a shared space. He is genuinely democratic, rare for someone in his position.

At Kevin’s request a dressing room by the stage door has been turned into a little reception room. Buddy, the stage door man, is heard to remark “And they made this nice little room just here for the people after the show – press, and s— like that”.

13 March

Day off … Pop in to see Kevin filming. Meet Danny de Vito

14 March

We work on one act a day and run it. The play starts to take off and is only a few minutes too long: not half bad. the week carries on this way, moving towards the mountain, a run-through on Friday.

We begin the run at 10.15-ish. With two breaks, as in performance, we finish at 2.35, Spot on. We are all wiped. Not only does it happen – How? “I don’t know. It’s a mystery!” – the increased American-ness of the experience peels away yet another layer of the onion, revealing more of the play than ever. We have two weeks to go until the “Gypsy” dress – an invited, free performance. With luck, the company will be right on top of it and, as Howard says, “If the work we do in the next week doesn’t have time to set, and we slip back to this level of playing, I’ll still be very pleased.” …

22 March

We are back to detailed work – tightening up, speeding up. But there is a group need to run, so Howard schedules a run of the first three acts for tomorrow, with the final work on act four, as we go through the technical rehearsals which begin on Wednesday.

23 March

Good run. Good notes. Just giving notes on a play as long as Iceman can take two hours…

24 March

Techs begin – setting sound, lights, music, costume, makeup…. Into the crowded dressing room … Kevin has chosen the corner that he had when he made his Broadway debut – in Ghosts – at the age of 20.

It is at this point that having been on stage really pays off. There is none of the usual strangeness as you become used to the set, furniture and props. The set is home already. We finish at 11-ish, having worked most of three acts.

26 March

Dress run in the afternoon. Sluggish act one, then we lift off. It’s efficient rather than lively. But I prefer that with the dress. Break, then notes….

28 March

The Gypsy dress. Full house – all paper. Nerves are up, but we are ready for an audience and it goes with a swing, despite the presence of photographers and video cameras, clicking and whirring. Big reception. We can now look forward optimistically to 10 days of previews.

There’s a warning from Howard: one of the reasons for opening a play in Boston (thereby skipping previews in New York) is to avoid receiving “notes” from friends. Just don’t listen to your mates, is his advice.

29 March – 4 April

First preview. First paying public. It is better than last night. We have our second-night let-down on the Tuesday. Howard has the good sense to give us a day off, which helps: fatigue is a factor in a play as long as this. People are developing colds and Kevin’s voice wavers, which is very unusual. The play is in good condition but the increase in the stakes as we near the first night is palpable. We build a much more technically precise show by the end of the week. By the Saturday matinee, the performance is the best it has ever been, including London, with the company learning to ride off the laughs and drive it through with focus. Just as well: Neil Simon is in. Kevin brings him round to meet the company and he is sweetly generous: “A great ensemble, with a great star. I can’t imagine that we shall ever see this in America again.”

By Saturday evening we are wiped out …A big Jack Daniel’s. Bed. A day off. Clocks go forward: it seems unfair to lose an hour at this stage.

5 April

The press are in and will be for two nights. It’s called continuous assessment …We have a very brief rehearsal and note calls. The play is up and together. It’s with the gods – or the hacks…..

8 April

First night. Dressing rooms piled high with flowers, champagne, gifts, cards. A telegram from Ted Mann, producer of the Robards production of ’56. A letter from Robards himself! Stage door under siege. Audience there to be seen. The performance is better than they deserve. [excuse me, but..!]

The party at the Tavern on the Green (in Central Park) is major. The spring night is balmy. The lights in the trees twinkle. It really is a night to remember.

And will we enter Broadway legend? Well, I can’t tell you, because I don’t read the notices.”

                                                                       – The Independent, April 17, 1999