At Harry Hope’s Saloon, Pondering Their Pipe Dreams

Photo by Richard Termine

There’s almost always someone face down on a table in the bleak and beautiful revival of Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” now settled into the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater for a six-week run.

Nathan Lane as middle-aged salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman and Brian Dennehy as ex-anarchist Larry Slade lead an 18-actor ensemble in the nearly five-hour play, which in its current incarnation premiered three years ago at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. This “Iceman” is helmed by Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director, who previously led Dennehy—then, as Hickey—in “Iceman” a quarter-century ago.

The production design throughout these four acts is as dark and soiled as O’Neill’s message about the futility of our aspirations, with Dennehy bathed in a barely perceptible glow as the play begins, his slumped-over companions becoming more visible as the light spreads.

“Iceman” is O’Neill’s despairing story about the denizens of Harry Hope’s west side saloon, a surly lot watching any promise of fulfillment slip beyond the horizon. The patrons (and the saloon’s owner, who hasn’t ventured outside since the death of his wife, 20 years earlier) await the fast-talking Hickey’s semi-annual revelries with the anticipation of a drunk expecting a generous pour from a bartender.

Everyone in this bar believes redemption is just around the corner. Agoraphobe Harry (an acidic and unpredictable Stephen Ouimette, with Lane, below) has vowed to finally venture out into the sunlight. Former war correspondent “Jimmy Tomorrow” (James Harms, fragile and earnest) swears this will be the day he reclaims the newsman’s job he lost. Ed Mosher, Harry’s brother in law (a slick Larry Neumann Jr.), is sure he can earn a fast buck if he gets back in the circus game.

These are all just pipe dreams, as O’Neill reminds us some three-dozen times throughout “Iceman,” though they are relentlessly encouraged by Lane’s Hickey, who arrives at the end of the first act tossing a handful of bills in the air like a mad carny preacher. It’s rewarding to see Lane, the comic treasure, venturing again into darker territory, as he did in “The Nance.” His Hickey is full of empty promises, and hiding more darkness than anyone else in the bar.

Dennehy, slouching and scowling and awaiting the “fine long sleep of death,” conserves his energy, so that when his passions are unleashed—mostly in confrontation with Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews, a powder keg), the son of his imprisoned girlfriend—they resonate even more. Parritt’s mother and Hickey’s dead wife, Evelyn, are the two unseen women whose presence hovers in the bar’s air like so much stale smoke.

Salvatore Inzerillo is hulking and fearsome as night bartender Rocky, a pimp by any other name. Respected New York stage actor John Douglas Thompson is wonderful as Joe Mott, the black man who once ran a gambling house and dreams of reopening it.

With its runtime (there are three intermissions) “The Iceman Cometh” is a serious commitment. Once you’re invested in it—and it’s difficult to not be—it’s the sort of overwhelmingly sad production likely to leave you examining your own unfulfilled promises.

“The Iceman Cometh,” through March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. Tickets: $35-$180. Call 718-636-4100.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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