MONUMENTAL (and slow-going) as a glacier, Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" moves everything in its path with its inexorable, timeless power.
It was the successful 1956 revival of "Iceman" at New York's Circle in the Square that made a name for the young Jason Robards and made Jose Quintero known as the director of O'Neill dramas. Now, thirty years on, their "Iceman" returneth, reuniting Robards and Quintero with O'Neill's epochal epic of American antiheroes.
Four-and-a-half absorbing hours long (including 38 minutes of intermissions), this Broadway-bound production at the Eisenhower Theater is the final production of the American National Theater's charter season.
Quintero's steadfastly straightforward production demonstrates how drama has changed in 30 years. Unlike today's more elliptical, sometimes purposefully obscure writers, O'Neill was not afraid to stre-e-e-tch out the talk and create lots of characters, and he baldly declares his themes and symbols (for starters, the play centers on a birthday celebration for the proprietor of Harry Hope's Bar).
O'Neill also lays it all out for the audience in the opening moments. The sepulchral silence of a dozen drunks sleeping it off in the bar is broken by cynical Larry, who, in a speech dense with poetry, introduces us to this "end of the line cafe" and its grim gallery of bottomscrapers, a "Who's Who in dipsomania," who have become permanent barroom fixtures, unable or afraid to leave its entombing security. One by one, they wake to retell their pitiful stories.
Every human has his "pipe dreams," O'Neill says again and again, implying that, paradoxically, illusions are both sustaining and destructive. And each of Harry Hope's patrons has one dream left at the bottom of his glass. There's James Cameron, a gray little guy the regulars have dubbed "Jimmy Tomorrow" for his incessant plans to clean up his act -- "first thing tomorrow." And Harry Hope himself, who hasn't left the premises since his wife died 20 years ago and has surrounded himself with sponging sycophants. And Joe Mott, the black man who insists on being treated "white." Even the hookers, Margie, Pearl and Cora, insist on being called "tarts," not "whores," and their manager, Rocky the bartender, bristles at the word "pimp."
Quintero emphasizes the static, lifeless repetition of their oft-told tales to heighten the impact of the arrival of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, everyone's pal. But he's not the affable, laughable, hard-boozing Hickey they were expecting. This Hickey's on the wagon, and over the course of two days, he holds an unwelcome mirror up to their ruined faces, using cunning confrontational tactics.
Robards plays Hickey with backslapping vigor, and his 30-minute marathon monologue is an acting tour de force. The ensemble is excellent, with standout turns by Barnard Hughes as Harry Hope, Caroline Aaron as Cora, Roger Robinson as Joe Mott and James Greene as Jimmy Tomorrow.
Quintero arranges the actors in a long, painterly tableau, superimposing the lonely look of Edward Hopper and the seedy realism of Paul Cadmus on Leonardo's "Last Supper."
There's a dark patina of neglect on everything in Ben Edwards' battered barroom set, with its symbolically shrouded mirror and dingy old wood moldings. Thomas R. Skelton's lighting is equally eloquent -- light seeps in from the streaked and fogged barroom windows, and comments on the mood, moving from sallow streetlight and greasy yellow bar lamps to the wan, chill light of morning.
THE ICEMAN COMETH -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through September 14.