… too much truth …

The Iceman Cometh is a great play that anyone interested in theater and literature should have the chance to know. It’s a true classic.

It’s a play about a bunch of “bums” – what daring to write on all counts! Sixteen alcoholics, have-beens and never-will-be’s hang out around Harry Hope’s bar, drowning their disappointments in booze while holding hope – and bolstering each others’ hopes — for a better tomorrow.

Like Jimmy Tomorrow — the down-and-out former newspaper reporter, sure he’ll get back on board the world, have his old typewriter fixed, check in with his old friends, quite the booze and get a good job.  All that will happen … tomorrow.  Cora the streetwalker and Rocky the bartender will get married … tomorrow.  Harry’s is a cozy nest of shared pipe dreams.

And since tomorrow is Harry’s birthday, they’re looking forward to Hickey’s arrival — he’s a successful salesman with a “normal” life,  money, a wife and a home in Queens,  who comes to Harry’s bar twice a year for a long bender.  When Hickey’s around, drinks are on him and the booze flows freely. Hickey with his glad hand and jokes — including a vulgar innuendo about his own wife and the iceman that makes them uncomfortable.  Still, Hickey always brings good times.

But this time, he’s changed.

For one thing, Hickey’s not drinking, though they’re relieved he’s still buying the drinks.  But he’s also gone preachy.  He collars each of them with his message: stop just talking about what you’re going to do tomorrow — do it.  You, Jimmy Tomorrow, spruce up, get out and get a job.  And you, Willie – hit that law buddy you’re always talking about for a job.  Get that circus job back, Ed.  Tie the knot, Cora and Rocky, don’t pretend.

And when tomorrow dawns, they all make the try.  One by one they leave the bar, looking more or less resolute, set to take on the world.  And soon enough they return to the bar, one by one, downcast, their failures demonstrated.  Most of them never made it past sitting out some time on a park bench.

They fail, just as Hickey knew they would., and he’s  exuberant, manically so.  By getting them to try, he’s gotten them to face the truth that they can’t  succeed.  Now, he says, they’re free,  they know for sure they’re nothing more than bums. Their pipe dreams are up in smoke.  But all this “truth” doesn’t have the effect Hickey expected.  Instead, it leaves the denizens of Harry’s bar dulled as the dead.  The laughter, the good feeling, the camaraderie – it’s all over.  Even the liquor loses its kick.

And Hickey’s truth?  It’s a tragic story that he pours forth in  two cascading monologues.  These stunning monologues, and his acting in general, bring up the question of Nathan Lane’s performance: is he effective in the part of Hickey?  I went to this Iceman because I thought he’d be superb as the fast-talking, anguished salesman, but I was disappointed.  He works hard — he punches it out and gives it his all — but he lacks the depth and resonance the part needs.

Brian Dennehy in the role of Larry Slade gives the most powerful performance as a death-fearing, disillusioned anarchist.  In an important sub-plot, he’s bedeviled by a youthful stool pigeon, a wretched remnant from his once hopeful past.

The pacing of the performance is slower than needed so the four and three-quarter hour production begins to feel long — though worth it.

But the direction, and Lane himself, didn’t bring out a signifying moment so important that I’m going to describe it here:

With their illusions destroyed by Hickey’s game, the characters are overcome by depression.  But — the second great monologue — Hickey recounts his personal psychic agony and admits to a crime, and they begin to think, not unreasonably, that he’s insane.  They take heart from that.  He vehemently asserts that he’s freed them, by bringing them all, including himself, to face truth.  But — freeing themselves from Hickey — they reason that if Hickey’s insane, his forcing them to face their failures was the blabber of a madman: now they’re free to drift back into the illusions that keep them alive!

Surrounded by their hopes for escape from brutal truth, Hickey, in a moment of insight, generosity and, probably, survivorship “admits” he’s insane.  As played here, this key growth and change in the central character passes with such understatement that it’s missed – at least those in the audience I spoke with didn’t catch it.  If you go to see the play, watch for it right near the end. It’s a brilliant dramatic moment.

The Iceman Cometh. A monumental play about a bunch of bums: how remarkable!  And producing it is a tour de force.   This able production of a powerful play has impact.

The Iceman Cometh plays at the Harvey Theater of BAM in Brooklyn through March 15, 2015.

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