FAMILY REUNION AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA
[A review of The Iceman Cometh, a production of the American National Theater, produced by Lewis Allen, James Nederlander, Stephen Graham and Ben Edwards, directed by Josť Quintero, with scenery by Ben Edwards, costumes by Jane Greenwood, and lighting by Thomas R. Skelton. The production opened at the Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., on July 31, 1985, finishing its run on September 14. It then transferred to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway for an indefinite run of six performances a week. Previews began on September 21, the official opening was at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 29, and the final performance was on Sunday, December 1. This reviewer attended the performance on Thursday, October 17.]
The milk has been spilled and there is no efficacy in tears. The monumental revival of the legendary 1956 production of Iceman, reuniting three members of that earlier production--Jason Robards (Hickey), Josť Quintero (director) and James Greene (Jimmy Tomorrow)---certainly deserved a much longer run, and would have had it if theatergoing were still the serious activity it once was on the Great White Way. Unfortunately, today's audiences want something light, splashy, and preferably tuneful; something that will tax neither their patience nor their minds. (If your message is about "tomorrow" being "always a day away," you'd best have it sung by a gaggle of cuddly urchins or risk precipitous unemployment!) But even a short-lived O'Neill revival is cause for rejoicing, and a production as lovingly crafted as this one quickly stills all bitterness at its inhospitable rejection by the general public. One can only hope that a tape or film was made before the closing, to provide future generations with a record of how moving and exhilarating Iceman can be when both the letter and the spirit of the text are brought to life by artists of genius. (This issue's "centerfold" is offered as a small tribute to their towering achievement.)
Admittedly, at moments of stasis, when the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon had not been roiled by the two intruders, Hickey and Parritt, the pace was slow. But life is slow at the bottom of the sea. The audience must imbibe the group's ordinary atmosphere, and at length, before the peaceful depths are agitated by outsiders. You cannot understand the boredom in Chekhov's country houses without experiencing a little of that boredom yourself; and you cannot understand the threat that Hickey poses to the hopeless hopers at Harry's until you have shared a table there in the dim, slow light of early dawn. O'Neill knew what he was doing, and Josť Quintero honored that intent admirably, offering no cute, distracting "business" as each individual voice was slowly added to the accumulating chord of communality. (To shift metaphors, the long opening scene is a still life, and the stillness offers an important clue to the life. How ironic that the play's first words--Rocky's to Larry as he offers him a drink--are "Make it fast"! The playwright's tacit injunction to the director is quite the opposite, and Quintero had the faith in his master to "make it slow.")
Ben Edwards' unit set filled the wide, shallow stage of the Lunt--Fontanne: bar area at the right, coldly lighted (at the start) through the establishment's massive but greasy and fogged front window; back room at the left, more warmly lighted through a small window downstage of an old upright piano. The rear wall jutted out slightly at the middle, between the two areas, to give the suggestion of a division. And the inhabitants were slumped, in varying postures of sodden indolence, at tables scattered across the whole expanse of the stage. As was true of the direction, all was realistic but spare: there was no row of varicolored bottles behind the towering mahogany bar, no period gewgaws to tickle the memories of old timers and distract from the human detritus on display in this subaqueous realm that seemed so real for all its sparseness. The initial tableau, rightly praised by Frank Rich in the New York Times (November 24, Sec. II, p.1), with its suggestions of peace and death remained etched in the mind, and neither the disruptions caused by Hickey's "mission," nor the sad attempts at party decoration in Act Two, could erase it.
The acting ensemble was reportedly superb, but a shuffling of the cast at the performance I attended jarred it a bit, since James Greene, who usually played Jimmy Tomorrow (as he had in 1956), was shifted to the role of Harry Hope to replace the absent Barnard Hughes, who must have made a splendid Harry. Greene would be right for Jimmy, but he lacked the authoritative gruffness that is an essential part of Harry's nature, and the other necessary changes (an understudy played Moran, so the usual Moran could substitute as Jimmy) make it unfair to comment on the ensemble that evening. But a number of individual performances stood out as exceptionally fine: John Pankow and Harris Laskawy as the two bartenders (Rocky and Chuck, respectively)--the one greasily efficient as confidant to Larry, the other sadly corpse-like (as were all of Hickey's converts) when suited up for his short-lived attempt at marital bliss in the country; Roger Robinson, whose grief, pride and angry assertion of dignity as Joe Mott earned a round of applause at his exit in Act Three: Leonardo Cimino, whose Hugo Kalmar deserved as much pity as the laughs he received at his moments of self-revelation; and especially John Christopher Jones (Willie Oban), whose pounding accompaniment to his song begins to bring the assembly to consciousness, and who seemed the best of all in revealing the effects of lengthy intoxication. Pathetic in his return to feigned sleep when threatened by Harry with incarceration in his upstairs room, and again in his feverish search for future clients, Jones caught perfectly the lilt of the Oban lingo and the impossibility of his ever again functioning successfully in the "real" world outside.
Donald Moffat, his head usually in his hands, and his sad, red-rimmed eyes shadowed by thick white brows, caught both the gruff and tender sides of Larry Slade, increasingly uncomfortable in his seat in an illusory grandstand as he is needled into ending the misery of a boy who may very well be his son. That son, Don Parritt, must be the most thankless role in the play. A self-peeling onion who reveals lie after lie about his actions until reaching the final truth inside, he has little chance of earning much sympathy. Sometimes sympathy is sought by casting a matinee-idol type--like Robert Redford or Jeff Bridges--in the part. No such sentimentality was attempted this time: Paul McCrane, short, slick-haired, and crammed into an ill-fitting suit, had all the romantic charisma of a stoat, and his selection for the part was uniformly panned by reviewers. But I felt that his edgy, shrill performance was just right: to pity Don Parritt because he is a cute-kid-gone-wrong would be to engage in "the wrong kind of pity." If Parritt is to be pitied, it must not be on the basis of looks or manner. This production did not settle for easy answers, and Mr. McCrane deserves credit for taking the knocks attendant on that brave decision.
Of course any performance of The Iceman Cometh stands or falls on the basis of its Hickey--as was so sadly revealed in the 1973 film, a delicious doughnut with a gaping hole in the middle. And no performer has ever been as associated with the role as Jason Robards, who starred in the 1956 production and later recreated his performance on television. But more than a quarter century has passed since those ventures, and one wondered if he could do it again, so much later. The answer is yes and no: he did it again, and brilliantly; but he did it differently, finding new depths in the part that more than compensated for any diminution of brio that the passage of time necessarily entails. From his arrival song, though it was delivered to a jaunty dance step that showed why he was so loved by his former associates, this was a Hickey who was spent--spent by age, and spent by a guilt that cannot be buck-and-winged away or hidden beneath the sheeny black of his hair. (Whether we were meant to infer that Hickey had had some tonsorial doing-up en route to the party, I'm not sure; but the ebon hair lent him a cadaverous look that can't have been unintentional, especially as it was shared by at least two of his converts--Harry and Jimmy--when he sent them out on their missions of truth.) (See the photo of the trio in the centerfold.) Not that performer or character was listless: the quick smile, the glad hand, the dancing and frequent movement seemed as real as the energy behind them. But when this Hickey succumbed to sleep late in the first act, it was especially believable.
No one could equal Robards in the sardonic thrust of his grinning accusations of others' illusions: this is no friend to have around if you've got a mask to keep in place. And no one will ever better his harrowing delivery of the last-act monologue--though I didn't think his banging on the piano keys at "bitch"--the last word of his remembered remark to Evelyn--did anything to enhance the speech's, and the play's, most climactic moment. The moment's force is verbal; it got the delivery for which Mr. Robards is rightly famed; and a piano chord, even a cacophonous one, added nothing. Robards' performance was studded with moments of brilliance: his prophetic refusal to shake Parritt's hand when they are introduced in Act One (somehow he's "on to" this soul-mate from the start); his looming presence when, unseen by the others, he overhears Larry's comments about him in Act II; the electric moment at the party when, after proposing a toast to Harry, he rises to a pitch of evangelical fervor--
the grimace of pain in Act Three, when he realizes the failure of his attempt at salvation for all; and the obsessive turning of his wedding ring during the last-act monologue, which was delivered with enough erratic, kinetic movement to make clear that the peace he's claimed to have achieved is as illusory as any of the others' pipe dreams.
I must say that I found myself resenting the other characters' interruptions of the monologue--except, of course, for the Parritt counterpoint, which is essential. But my quarrel there is with the playwright, who might have trusted the actors to reveal, by face and gesture, their reactions. Surely he knew, even if they don't, that they are interrupting one of the greatest speeches in modern drama!
As long as I've already quarreled with the playwright, I might as well mention my one additional displeasure--with the theatre. Iceman, as I've said in the past, requires a closeness between performers and spectators to achieve its full force; and the Lunt-Fontanne is a huge, deep, high-staged playhouse that defies the establishment of that closeness. However much empathy the actors arouse, our physical distance from them tends to diffuse it. There is no way of knowing, of course, but I'd bet that if the production had taken place on a thrust stage, like that at the Circle in the Square, it would still be running. Would that it were!
These few reservations notwithstanding, the 1985 production of The Iceman Cometh was an experience to cherish. To Messrs. Robards and Quintero--indeed, to all--a hearty hurrah. I doubt that we shall see their like again.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
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