Straight, No Chaser

We owe England a lot for rediscovering some of our shows for us: the wonderful Not About Nightingales and now that absolute masterpiece The Iceman Cometh. And while we are on debts, let’s not overlook O’Neill’s debt to Ibsen: Hickey, the antihero of Iceman, cometh out of Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck. But O’Neill took Ibsen’s conceit and ran with it, in his own idiosyncratic and idiomatic direction, even farther than the Norwegian.

This masterwork of American and world theater needs little more summary than Hamlet. You all know that it is a long but riveting play about hopeless drunks in Harry Hope’s saloon downtown – or even farther down, in hell – who survive on a mix of rotgut and pipe dreams, the opium of the messes. They believe they’ll someday resume the lives they’ve flunked out of, and they wait, like fallen angels, for the gates of Heaven to reopen. Well, a couple of them know better, and one of them merely awaits someone’s approval of his projected suicide.

What none of them wants is the truth: that their aspirations are totally delusory, and that they’ll never take a step out of the artificial paradise of booze and woozy palaver. And then there is Hickey, the supersalesman, who drops in periodically to join in the factitious fun. But now something grave has happened to him, and he resolves to prod these moles out into the world to realize their pipe dreams. They fail, just as he expected they would. But the result is not what he wished for: Instead of being freed from their sense of false hope and guilt, they feel squashed; even the whiskey has gone flat. Until, that is . . .

However well you may know Iceman, you must see this wondrous production, staged by Howard Davies with consummate artistry. On a terrific set by Bob Crowley, magisterially half-lit by Mark Henderson, these lost sots enact a comedy-drama whose relevance extends to the soberest souls among us. The staging is splendidly pictorial and tirelessly resourceful, and the actors, including five repeaters from the London cast, perform this comic nightmare like an intoxicating dream. The 255 minutes (which include two intermissions) go by rather too quickly, but never fear: The memories will last you long enough to recoup the fairly steep ticket price a hundredfold.

The cast is, mostly, superb. Tony Danza is a trifle too obvious as the bartender-pimp, Michael Emerson tries to do too much with Willie, and Richard Riehle does too little with McGloin. But the others are just about perfect, and please pay special attention to what Paul Giamatti, Jeff Weiss, and Katie Finneran do with what could have been lesser roles. And now for Kevin Spacey.

We have had the masterly Hickey of Jason Robards in 1956. His was a poetic, charismatic, almost balletic Hickey – until the final, painful scene, all lyricism, laughs, and razzle-dazzle. Now comes the equally great but antithetical Spacey, as a Hickey who, by the time we meet him, is ice-cold, sinisterly charming, radiating a diabolic beauty. His speech sounds like the blandishments of a solicitous kindergarten teacher one moment, like distant machine-gun fire the next. On the move, he is a panther in pants; when still, a coiled cobra. His gaze is by turns encouraging, enigmatic, unendurable. It is a performance to make every nonactor want to take up acting and every actor want to give up in despair.

There is a marvelous, unjustly neglected barroom poem by Kenneth Patchen about (among other things) his mother’s meeting with God: “She said it was like a fog coming over her face / And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying / You can stop crying now.” That is the mood in which you’ll leave this show.

Straight, No Chaser