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If Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is set in hell, then Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is something more like purgatory, a waystation for people who once lived a meaningful life but are now stuck in the Sisyphean task of recounting it and the self-delusion that they can go back to it at any time. Into this purgatory waltzes Hickey, a friend from the past who’s here to disabuse them all of their notions so they can stop puffing on pipe dreams and start living again.
That obviously cannot end well.
The Iceman Cometh was first produced in 1946; the version that opened at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre on February 5 (it runs through March 15) is an import from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, still directed by Robert Falls and starring Nathan Lane as Hickey and Brian Dennehy as the Larry Slade.
Slade’s first turn in Iceman, decades ago, was in fact as Hickey. It’s hard to imagine when you’re watching him grunt, sigh, and grimace his way through Larry, the only guy on stage who isn’t deluding himself, or at least that’s what he tells himself as he marinates at the bottom of a bottle, waiting for death to arrive. “I’m a philosophical drunken bum,” he tells a new arrival.
Dennehy’s performance is especially wonderful whenever you’re not supposed to be paying attention to him. I mean this in the best and most respectful possible way: his facial expressions recall something like a blearily mordant Muppet, and once I noticed, I couldn’t look away. For a man who claims he’s content, Dennehy’s Slade is restless, all quiet foot-tapping and subdued sleeve-picking, which has the disconcerting effect of making the rest of the cast seem as if they are capital-A Acting.
Except Lane, who seems to be exactly the man for whom Hickey was written. He plays the man as just as deluded as the rest, but buoyant, good-hearted, and friendly, a switch from how the character is sometimes played. There isn’t a mean bone in Hickey’s body, or a badly-intentioned one, which means the final revelation is all the more terrifying. He is part jester and part tormentor, and everyone complains, and nobody can do anything about it, nor, does it seem, would they want to.
With a nearly five-hour runtime all contained in the same room, The Iceman Cometh could come off as an everlasting sojourn in purgatory—there’s probably a reason No Exit is set in one room, one act. But Kevin Depinet’s (inspired by an earlier John Conklin set) ingeniously rotates around the room at each act, setting its actors against a different wall, which at first feels like variety and eventually emphasizes the claustrophobia of its everlasting, day-after-day sameness. All punctuation is the same broken-heartedness, the same outbursts followed by the same forgiveness, the everlasting sameness.
The result is a riveting production, which barely seems to have been written almost seventy years ago. Turns out drunken bums in bars are telling the same stories today they were when O’Neill was imagining them, despite the Hickeys of the world. Iceman mashes up the Preacher of Ecclesiastes—”vanity, all is vanity”—with a Didionesque touch of telling stories in order to live, in order to make order of the madness, finished off with eating and drinking. Maybe tomorrow we don’t die, but we will eventually, so while we tarry in purgatory, let’s all be what we are: philosophical drunken bums.