In New York, an ‘Iceman’ for the ages

Stage Review
by Daniel Patrick Stearns

NEW YORK — Eugene O’Neill’s impossible, impractical barroom drama The Iceman Cometh — with its four-hour-plus length and 19 characters — pushes economic feasibility beyond the breaking point. It is at the Brooks Atkinson Theater only because it stars Kevin Spacey and has a cast earning minimum Broadway wage and a public paying up to $100 a ticket. Is it worth it for a play about a bunch of bums?

Put it this way: No admirer of the great American play should miss it ( four stars out of four). Because this portrayal of a barroom as a microcosm of human existence is so infrequently performed, productions are more about wrestling with it than revealing it. But thanks to last summer’s London run, Spacey, director Howard Davies and key cast members have lived with it long enough to chart its depths even further than Jason Robards and Jose Quintero on Broadway in 1984 and Brian Dennehy and Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1990.

The New York cast has newcomers, but what’s lacking in experience with the play tends to be made up with star presence: Tony Danza as the bartender and Robert Sean Leonard as the Judas-like ex-anarchist Dan Parritt.

The play’s message has never been clearer. The gamut of races and nationalities chained to their barstools, refusing to face the grim reality of their lives, aren’t the losers. Those who attempt to achieve some higher state of consciousness by confronting life without illusions are inviting the unbearable: life without God, hope or humanity. Existential realization equals utter despair.

‘Iceman’ cast: Members of the production take the stage. As the mysteriously reformed Hickey (who suddenly prefers preaching to his barfly buddies), Spacey embodies that paradox. Superficially convivial, he’s both haunted and exalted, seductive but repellent. He does psychological pirouettes around everyone with quicksilver unpredictability, penetrating all concerned with a mesmeric stare.

When he encounters a fellow existential traveler in Dan Parritt, his gaze is almost sexually charged. However layered his characterization, Spacey’s performance unfolds with remarkable ease — he acts smart, not hard —allowing the play’s network of imagery to insinuate itself cunningly.

The ensemble around him reveals O’Neill’s psychological precision at every turn. Yes, even ex-TV star Danza (though the more stage-experienced Leonard hasn’t quite found his focus). The unexpected standout is Clarke Peters, who once conceived that good-time revue Five Guys Named Moe. Here, he’s barroom denizen Joe Mott, with a rubbery physicality that grows into steely backbone amid the onslaught of racial slurs.

He exemplifies what director Davies instills throughout the play: a dark humor that lies somewhere between uproarious laughter and the death rattle. Also important, Davies is able to shape the play’s daringly long dramatic arcs, which are rarely encountered outside of Wagnerian opera. Obviously, this production is a landmark in Iceman history. Not quite so obviously, it may be making theater history.