To watch a play by Eugene O'Neill these days is to realize how puny much of contemporary theater has become.
Whatever his shortcomings, O'Neill saw big and worked large. Had he been a sculptor, one can easily picture him -- hammer and chisel in hand -- producing the great granite faces on Mount Rushmore. By comparison, today's playwrights are miniaturists, scratching cameos with needles and pins.
"The Iceman Cometh," which opened Saturday night at the Eisenhower Theater in a production starring Jason Robards, is one of his major monuments. With intermissions, its four towering acts run almost five hours. There are 19 characters, and nearly as many life histories to wade through. More than that, however, the impression of bigness comes, I think, from the obsessiveness of O'Neill's concerns, his inability to leave any boulder unturned. He is America's most unrelenting dramatist, pushing and battering his plays through to their conclusions and sometimes, seemingly, hurling the whole weight of his body against them.
Written in 1940 and produced on Broadway six years later, "Iceman" was not fully appreciated until 1956, when it was revived off-Broadway by a team that included Robards and director Jose' Quintero. Under the auspices of the American National Theater, the Eisenhower production reunites both artists -- older and presumably wiser to the ways of self-delusion that have brought O'Neill's characters to their states of drunken paralysis. The rematch is welcome. While it was not my fortune to see Robards' performance the first time around, one aspect of his presence -- the fleshy pallor of mortality he imparts even when he's clapping a crony on the back -- is so poisonously vivid that I can't imagine it ever having been better.
Early in the first act, a one-time anarchist who has since taken refuge in alcohol and a woozy stance of philosophical indifference states the play's theme. "The lie of the pipe dream," he says, eyeing the bums and wastrels who call Harry Hope's dingy New York gin mill home, "is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." Indeed the saloon -- designed with stunningly deceptive simplicity by Ben Edwards -- is populated by the walking dead, or in this case, the dozing dead, waiting for the arrival of a certain Hickey to replenish their cups and reenergize their pipe dreams one more time. O'Neill won't rest -- or allow us to -- until he's tracked down every phantom on a stage crawling with them.
Robards, of course, is recreating Hickey, the role that made him a star. An extroverted traveling salesman, Hickey usually blows the derelicts to drink and food and raucous jokes about his wife's supposed infidelities with the iceman. This time, though, he's got a different agenda. Instead of party favors, he wants to pass out peace of mind -- the peace of mind that comes from recognizing a pipe dream for what it is: a miserable lie. But what Hickey envisions as the vivifying wind of truth, sweeping away all the fetidness of the past, turns out to be as lethal as a twister.
Robards has always had a "hail fellow well met" heartiness. But here he doesn't quite seem to be doing his own cheerful bidding. With his striped suit, his bow tie and those wide ingenuous eyes, in fact, he looks like a ventriloquist's dummy. When he throws up his arms to get the party rolling, you wonder if someone isn't pulling the strings. His smile is pasty, skeletal even. He's got the mark of rot on him. Robards makes it so contagious, as he weaves among the stinking bums who've always looked to him for salvation, that you recoil for them. If the last-act monologue, in which Hickey finally spills his own secrets, is less riveting, it may be because the actor has simply beaten himself to the punch. From the start, you see, we've recognized him as death's recruiting officer.
"Iceman" is not easy sledding. It has an operatic grandeur about it, however, and the epic dimensions can be transfixing. O'Neill's characters are barely clinging to the lowest rung of society, but wretchedness does not diminish their dramatic stature. To the contrary, they are the Bowery equivalent of the figures on a Greek frieze. Quintero's staging, while acknowledging the tawdry behavior in a 1912 gin mill, is daringly formal. It moves from what amounts to one beautiful tableau to another, including, at the end of Act 2, an ironic allusion to the Last Supper. Thomas Skelton's lighting, an artful blend of chalky whites, early-morning grays and sunshine golds, filtered through an unwashed window, enhances the production's Old Master texture.
There are, of course, flare-ups and fist fights to dispel the despair. Three wan whores use the saloon as home base, and nothing goads them to quicker anger than the suggestion that they are "prostitutes," instead of "tarts." Englishman will square off against Boer, black against white, the prideful against the abject. But the tumult invariably subsides and in the classically eerie calm that follows, you get the impression that you are hearing more than characters talking: Souls are crying out in torment and remorse.
The supporting cast has forged a sense of brotherhood in squalor that can only grow stronger with subsequent performances. But already, the players seem to be plugged into the same life-support system -- faltering as it is. Their fear of being exiled to the shabby bedrooms upstairs unites them as much as their eagerness to entertain one another's gin-soaked fictions. (The ghosts of Samuel Beckett are not far away; "The Iceman Cometh" could be a "Waiting for Godot," in which Godot arrives.)
Particularly commanding in these lower depths are: Donald Moffat, as the sardonic ex-anarchist, clinging by his fingernails to his pose of lofty detachment; Barnard Hughes, as the establishment's proprietor, still pretending after 20 years that he mourns for his shrewish wife; Paul McCrane, as a young stool pigeon, looking to atone for his act of moral treachery; Roger Robinson, the black "sporting man," whose pipe dreams are further complicated by the inequities of race; and John Pankow, as the pimp who calls himself a bartender and dares anyone to contradict him.
Actually, they all get a chance at center stage. O'Neill is not about to stint on anyone's cursed destiny. As part of his Irish ancestry, he inherited a rich gift of gab and "Iceman" can be as repetitious as the drunks at Harry Hope's trying to wheedle a free drink. The poetry is often crude and the symbolism bald. But even when you get impatient with O'Neill, as you periodically do, you never doubt that he is in the process of erecting an immense play. The grandeur of that edifice, fully unveiled, is worth the tribulations of the wait.
The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Jose' Quintero. Sets, Ben Edwards; lighting, Thomas R. Skelton; costumes, Jane Greenwood. With Jason Robards, John Pankow, Donald Moffat, John Christopher Jones, Barnard Hughes, Roger Robinson, Paul McCrane, Caroline Aaron, Harris Laskawy, James Greene. At the Eisenhower Theater through Sept. 14.