Kevin Spacey Gives ‘Iceman’ Its Frigid Heart

By Lloyd Rose; Washington Post, April 9, 1999

NEW YORK, April 8 – Death is a salesman in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” — specifically, the traveling hardware salesman Theodore Hickman, a k a Hickey, who drops in on his drunken-bum pals in Harry Hope’s Lower West Side bar and proceeds to destroy them for their own good. The brilliant, powerfully malevolent Kevin Spacey, who plays Hickey in the production that opened tonight at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, may someday have another role as good as this, but he’ll never have a better one. Spacey’s an iceman himself — an actor whose immense presence and force are fueled not by interior fire but through the mysterious physics of some inner Absolute Zero. He incarnates with terrifying casualness the vacuum-cold nihilism at the center of this great, clumsy, half-mad, killing play.

I saw the production, an import from London’s Almeida Theatre, at its last preview six days ago, and it was ready to open then, a beautifully directed and acted ensemble piece for 19, each with his or her own sad song to sing. The year is 1912 and the setting is a flophouse/bar — the same year and the same setting in which the 23-year-old O’Neill once tried to kill himself. Twenty-seven years later, the playwright was finally ready to write about the place a character in the play calls “the No-Chance Saloon . . . the Bottom-of-the-Sea Rathskeller.”

The speaker is Larry Slade (a subtle, fascinating performance by Tim Pigott-Smith), the most self-aware of the delusional losers who spend their time drinking at Harry’s. Larry is an ex-anarchist who has dropped not only out of politics but out of life itself. He sits in the corner of the bar waiting, as he announces periodically, for death to end his misery, and sneering affectionately at the “pipe dreams” of his fellow drunks. Harry Hope (James Hazeldine) hasn’t left his bar since his wife, Bessie, died in 1892 and is convinced that this is because he’s still grieving for her.

The bartender Rocky Pioggi (Tony Danza) tells himself that he’s not really a pimp, even though he “manages” a couple of girls, because a pimp, after all, wouldn’t have a real job, like bar-tending. Broken-down Joe Mott (Clarke Peters) is sure that someday he’ll start the gambling house he dreams of, and professes not to mind the condescension of his fellows, who are given to phrases such as, “You’re the whitest black man I’ve ever known.” And the rest of the whores and bums and thugs have their pet illusions, too — tiny, flickering fires of lies to keep cold reality at bay. Knowing he’s in town, his pals have been looking forward to Hickey’s arrival.

We gather from their conversation that the “hardware drummer” is a glad-handing, free-spending guy, always ready with a joke, a man who brings a party with him. His favorite gag, which the bums laughingly repeat to one another, is that old one about the iceman — HUSBAND (calling upstairs): Has the iceman come yet? WIFE: Not yet, but he’s breathing hard!

A little shiver of unease precedes Hickey’s entrance. One of the characters has seen him on the street and brings back this message: “Tell the gang I’ll be along in a minute. I’m just figuring out the best way to save them and give them peace.”

A few minutes later, Hickey himself whirlwinds into the room, clapping backs, buying drinks and cracking wise. Just like old times except, they notice with dismay, he’s sober.

Written by an unrepentant drunk, “The Iceman Cometh” is the great American literary treatment of alcoholism, and one reason is that it not only scorns the lushes but the reformer as well. Hickey has gone through some undisclosed life-changing event and now, sobered up and, as he says, “at peace” with himself, he’s determined to share his new life with his friends.

The first thing to do is to rid them of all those ridiculous “pipe dreams.” The most famous — in some sense, the only — Hickey has been Jason Robards Jr., who starred in the 1956 revival and again in the mid-’80s tour (in which Spacey had a small role) and who “owns” the role the way Lee J. Cobb owns Willy Loman or Brando, Stanley Kowalski. Robards overflowed with warm, slightly sticky charm. His Hickey was a seducer, a master of the old blarney. He sold through flirtation, and there was neediness in his soul. Spacey, in contrast, has the hyped-up, aggressive energy of the used-car salesman on television who yells that we must come down to his lot now, now, now. He’s going to sell us if it chokes us.

It’s an open secret that aggression can underlie selling. Persuading the customer to buy something he didn’t know he wanted is just this side of a con, a relationship David Mamet acknowledged and exploited in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” That anger often fuels bonhomie is also no surprise. The life-of-the-party Hickey is dead inside, a little heap of cold ashes.

Robards allowed the character some vulnerability — he wanted to bring his friends to hell with him because he was lonely. Spacey’s Hickey is beyond this, high on the frigid thrill of finally admitting he’s the killer he always guiltily suspected he was. Robards’s Hickey had further to fall, which may be why this current production, excellent as it is, doesn’t have the destructive force of the 1980s revival, or even of the 1973 movie in which Lee Marvin attempted the role.

Marvin wasn’t up to the part but, like Robards, he suggested a man trying to outrun his own shame. Spacey, chillingly, gives the impression that Hickey is never more serenely himself, never more at peace, than when, one at a time, he shoots down his friends’ reasons to live. Technically speaking, this is a less subtle characterization. But its purity is shattering. This Hickey is a shadow, a dark myth, something in human nature we don’t want to look at.

Spacey whirls around the stage from man to man, touching an arm, slapping a shoulder, pointing a finger — half back-slapping politician, half boxer feinting punches. It took an Englishman like the director Howard Davies to show us that Hickey is an American archetype and to bring out that old radical O’Neill’s political message: that at the heart of capitalism, despite its promise of bounty and good times, is destruction.

Davies’ and Spacey’s approach also gives the audience a different sense of the play’s ending, when, except for Larry, Hickey’s ex-friends happily return to their illusions. In the ’80s revival and the film, Larry was the only man tough enough to face reality, and the rest were shown to be foolish men too weak to live without illusion. Here, when the monstrous Hickey is expelled and the denizens of Harry Hope’s reform their community of lies, it looks like a triumph. They may not be strong enough for life, but they’ve been strong enough to reject death. I never thought I’d see this play with a happy ending.