As the lights dim in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, a nearby audience member jokes that he put on incontinence undergarments in preparation for the night’s marathon viewing. At four hours and forty-five minutes, Robert Falls’s revisitation of The Iceman Cometh (he first directed it at the Goodman in 1990) demands physical and mental stamina from theatergoers as well as the eighteen-member cast, most of whom occupy the stage for the majority of the play. Despite requiring endurance, Falls’s latest rendition of Eugene O’Neill’s classic amply rewards. With numerous absorbing performances and an increasingly haunting set, Iceman flies by like a rollercoaster ride of thrilling comedic highs and stomach-churning lows. Along with the down-and-out denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon, viewers wait in growing anticipation for the traveling salesman Theodore Hickman, “Hickey,” played by Nathan Lane, whose arrival animates, unsettles, and threatens to destroy.
A two-time Tony Award recipient, brilliant comedic actor, and surprisingly short man, Lane seems at first an odd choice for the titanic figure of Hickey. With a stage appearance of three and a half hours and multiple tragic monologues, O’Neill’s central character holds challenges for any actor. Jason Robards Jr. pioneered the first successful salesman in José Quintero’s 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh. Reviewers praised Robards’s Hickey whose cool façade of affability barely concealed a roiling undercurrent of anxiety, a complex rendition that forced a critical reevaluation of O’Neill’s drama as a tragedy. Other notable performances of Hickey included Lee Marvin’s coarse, devilish tough-guy approach in John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film version and, in the same year, James Earl Jones’s take on the character’s possible insanity as the first African American Hickey at the Circle in the Square Theater. Most recently, in a 1999 staging in London and New York, Kevin Spacey received [End Page 117] accolades for his fast-talking Hickman, whose powers of insinuation slowly unveiled the character as a multi-layered, tortured soul.
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From the moment Lane’s Hickey bursts upon the stage late in act 1, he packs his interpretation with an infectious energy and dynamism. As Lane skates across the stage, clasping hands, patting backs, and acknowledging each broken barfly with a simple word or gesture, the audience leans forward. Who is this dapper, roly-poly drummer in the pinstriped suit, glowing with such good cheer that his eyebrows grin? And how is his mere pomaded presence able to resuscitate the slumbering pub? Indeed, in Falls’s rendition, Lane’s vibrancy cannot be severed from the ensemble cast’s contrasting collective performance. As the bleary eyes, drooping heads, and withered torsos of the tavern-goers turn toward Hickey, his magnetism multiplies. Weaving with ease between the tables, Lane works the stirring crowd with a honeyed tongue suddenly larger than his five feet, five inches. Even in act 2, when Hickey begins to gently harangue the inebriated inhabitants to abandon their pipe dreams and they curl visibly away, averting gazes and sidling against the saloon walls, the audience feels the respect and admiration these drunks still hold for their yearly visitor.
The sentiment is clearly reciprocated, for unlike Marvin’s malevolent Hickey, Lane’s salesman is insistent, yet caring in his approach. Like a preacher, he exclaims his newfound convictions with fervor but rests a reassuring hand on each sinner, striving to convert his flock to a life without illusions by invading their conscious minds without malice. When the wounded outcasts [End Page 118] begin to sober, look inward, and then lash out in anger at the businessman and at one another, theatergoers squirm in their seats. Strangely, however, Lane’s missionary zeal does not make the audience wish to banish him. Instead, this Hickey, even in the company of half-adoring...