Thirty years later, Jose Quintero and Jasom Robards have reunited, the former as director and the latter as star, to bring us "The Iceman Cometh," which brought fame to both in 1955 and stimulated renewed interest in its author, Eugene O'Neill - an interest that remains strong.
Now they're on Broadway, and the production that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne is engrossing in depth, though the three intermissions (two would have been sufficient) make for an almost five-hour evening.
It is doubtful that Robards' Hickey, the manipulative salesman with a terrible secret, is as electrifying today as it must have been in that earlier performance, which I unforgivably missed. But it is versatile, commanding and ultimately powerful, as Hickey's fourth-act confession builds to its shattering climax.
The play is a masterpiece, and this production is fortunate in having a cast that is strong in all its 17 parts (those 17 not counting the two cops who take Hickey away near the finish). Donald Moffat, as burned-out radical Larry Slade, comes very close to dominating the evening with his fiercely controlled, resonant, and intelligent account of the role.
The other lost souls, whose "pipe dreams" the crazily euphoric Hickey would dispel, are tellingly deployed by Quintero in the grimy reaches of Harry Hope's forlorn bar, black as death in Ben Edwards' suitably functional but overly emphatic scene design.
Barnard Hughes is an ideal Harry Hope, the salty proprietor who prefers staying drunk with his regulars to venturing into the outside world he has not seen since his wife died 20 years before.
Of the others, though I would like to cite them all, John Christopher Jones is superb as the wreck of a Harvard law grad, and Roger Robinson is equally fine as the black handyman. John Pankow is first-rate as the bartender Rocky, who takes a cut of the earnings of the two whores who make the saloon their home base.
Adding to this splendid array of derelicts are Bill Moor and Paul McCrane (as the pair continually fighting the Boer War), Allen Swift as the one-time circus sharpie, and James Greene as a spectral-looking Jimmy Tomorrow.
But it is Robards who is the very embodiment of the gabby jokester Hickey, for whom these characters are all expectantly waiting to celebrate Hope's 60th birthday. It is Hickey who motivates the play; he is a classic creation, whose depths keep sounding beneath his apparent superficiality.
One might also note that while O'Neill is repeatedly criticized as an awkward writer in spite of his power, "Iceman"'s dialogue is perfect for its time, its place, and its people.
Jane Greenwood's costumes and Thomas R. Skelton's lighting are other assets in this sturdy production of a work that restores one's faith in today's Broadway theater.
Eugene O'Neill, Jose Quintero, and Jason Robards make up a well-matched team we have encountered before, and last night Broadway encountered them again at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in a rematch of the play that first brought director, actor, and dead playwright together 29 years ago - The Iceman Cometh.
O'Neill's Iceman is not so much a play to go to, as a world to visit. It is an experience as much as an entertainment, and its odd reality seems not one whit diminished by its creaky symbolism, its fustian language, its inordinate length, or general incohesiveness.
It has, you see, the cohesion of life; its length is as long as it is, or needs to be; the symbolism - suggesting, presumably that Christianity is the pipe-dream of the masses - merely provides an added resonance to reality; and even the stagey rhetorical language, cranked out with literary and poetic pedantry, is not inappropriate to the drunken buzz of a bar.
And that drunken buzz is the background music to O'Neill's drama of illusion versus reality, fantasy over actually, and the survival of these barfiles - a microcosm fuzzily focused by booze - in the hostile climate of our lives.
The setting, the place of the inaction, is Harry Hope's saloon one cheerless dawn in the summer of 1912. The bar is a Sargasso sea with its floating derelicts as seaweed.
As Larry, the resident cynic/philosopher, and apostle of Death, notes at the outset:
"It's the No Chance Saloon, it's Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe, the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller - it's the last harbor. No one there has to worry about where they're going next, becuase there is no farther they can go."
Yet these down-and-outs, the flotsam of society, are still kept afloat by their "pipe-dream" of illusion - the illusion of hope, the fantasy that they can retrieve themselves and find redemption.
It is an illusion fueled by rotgut whiskey, and upheld by a drunken comradeship that accepts its members for what they want to be rather than what they are.
One special enabler of their pipe-dreams, keeper of their smoky flame, is Hickey, an itinerant salesman, who periodically breezes into their bar and their lives, buying drinks, telling stories, and giving these exiles a flicker of recognition from the outside world where they once all lived.
As our visit to them opens, they are awaiting the arrival of this Hickey, certain that he will arrive in time for Harry's birthday party that day.
Hickey arrives - full of toothy bonhomie and easy fellowship. But it is a different Hickey. He has found - he claims - a new strength in reality.
Not only is he off the sauce, he has become an evangelist for truth over illusion. He wants all of his old friends to give up their crazy "pipe-dreams," face up to the world.
Man does not live by bread alone, nor does he live simply by truth. And this is the burden of O'Neill's compassionate threnody to the weakness of man, the fallibility of his spirit, and the long littleness of his life.
A strange play. It needs to wash over you like the waves of hypnosis. It challenges you to accept its pace and its verbiage, its garrulous poetry, and its slow moving thought.
Its ideas loom up on one, as obvious as elephants in a mist, and trumpet away in echoing platitudes.
Its greatness lies in its pain and its effort. Its miasmic visions carry, with such human, such credible clumsiness, some perverse but honest understanding of the human condition.
The Iceman Cometh may exalt us - it does me - it may bore us - yes, it might you - but exalted or bored we would both surely agree that we had met with a monument. To my mind, it is a monument commemorating man's soul and spirit through the glorious folly of hope.
Quintero, Robards, and their hand-picked colleagues realize full well that monuments cannot be honored monumentally. They are best merely indicated - neither bestewn with flowers nor picked out with shocking graffiti.
A plain way is called for. A plain way with a plain play, and let its magic and symbolism emerge where it will, and let its spell creep stealthily over unsuspecting sightseers.
I never saw the old downtown Circle-in-the-Square production that all those years ago made, overnight, the reputation of play, director, and actor alike. I suspect it was better than this. Although this will do well enough in all consicence.
It is a play that performs very handsomely on-the-round, as we saw in its last New York outing in Ted Mann's staging with James Earl Jones at the new uptown Circle-in-the-Square.
The hugger-mugger proximity of such a staging adds to that sense of experience the play needs to convey. The only aspect of the play to emerge better in the proscenium arch st the odd "Last Supper" effect of Harry's birthday party.
A movie would probably be the ideal way of realizing Iceman, although admittedly John Frankenheimer's 1973 attempt left almost everything to be desired.
Quintero, his scenic designer - a lovely, musty, shabby setting by Ben Edwards - and his lighting designer, Tom Skelton, do their best to create this living acquarium that the play demands.
And - in this American style Lower Depths - the performances float well enough to the surface on the play's cue. The disappointment is Robards himself.
He has the right sliding grin, the slippery manner, the fading honesty of the used-car salesman. Yet beyond this there is not a depth that might suggest either a martyr, a saint, a devil, or a soul possessed.
When Ian Bannen played Hickey at the play's generally inauspicious London premiere in 1958, he had an other-worldliness that could have been saint, sinner, prophet, or murderer.
Robards seems just a reformed barfly salesman who has seen the light, signed the pledge, and wants to spread the word. He doesn't galvanized the play.
As a result the core of the play centers - as conceivably O'Neill intended - around the twisted, tortured soul of Larry, here in a splendedly rich performance by Donald Moffat, crusty and cranky, continuously looking ghost-shocked by the past.
There are other very fine performances here - Bernard Hughes as Harry, the complaisant but crochety saloon-keeper, John Pankow mongrel-like and dangerous as the bartender Rocky, Paul McCrane shiftily guilt-ridden as the Judas-like Parrit, and among the assorted fly-blown barflies, I took particular note of Bill Moor, James Greene, John Christopher Jones, and Allen Swift.
This Iceman gives distinction to the new Broadway season, indeed it gives glory - for this dip into the murky waters of the human soul cannot but be an unsettling but uplifting experience.
Yes, it could have been better - more vital, more engaged. But O'Neill's Iceman comes too rarely for us to question too nicely how he cometh!
Nothing glows when the lights rise on Harry Hope's waterfront gin-mill and flophouse in Jose Quintero's new production of "The Iceman Cometh." What comes dimly into view is a moldering, black-and-brown cave, barely discernible in a smudged gray-green haze. The derelicts who populate Eugene O'Neill's play describe this squalid setting as "a morgue" and "a tomb," as "The End of the Line Cafe" and "The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller." As designed by Ben Edwards and lighted by Thomas R. Skelton at the Lunt-Fontanne, Hope's saloon of 1912 looks as ghostly as those bottom-of-the-sea glimpses of the Titanic. But in "The Iceman Cometh" the bodies of the inhabitants are still visible - still terrifyingly alive, twitching in the silt. To see O'Neill's bums sprawled comatose across their sooty dive is to know one of the most harrowing images ever produced by the American theater.
For most plays, that image would be an ending. In "Iceman," it's only a beginning. O'Neill begins with a vision of existence at rock bottom and then, for nearly five hours (three intermissions included), just keeps plunging down, taking us and his characters past despair to utter hopelessness: We can't go home until we understand that the only truth that exists in life is the truth that kills. The guide for this pitiless journey is a hardware salesman named Hickey -a role that brought Jason Robards fame when he first played it, under Quintero's direction, in the 1956 Circle in the Square revival that helped restore O'Neill's then-tarnished reputation. In the current staging, which originated at Washington's American National Theater, Robards has reunited with Quintero, and both men are in brilliant form. Along with some other outstanding actors, led by the superlative Donald Moffat, they give us as stirring a production of O'Neill's masterwork as one might hope to see.
The word "masterwork" is not invoked lightly. "The Iceman Cometh," which was written in 1939 and first produced in 1946, is equal to and perhaps more influential than "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the two other towering plays at the end of O'Neill's career. "Iceman" occupies a secure position on the continuum of 20th-century drama that runs from "The Lower Depths" to "Waiting for Godot"; seeing it now, one finds the seeds of contemporary American plays as diverse as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" within its rat-infested corners. If O'Neill's theatrical architecture can be ham-fisted and his language repetitious, his tragic vision remains undiminished by time. In "Iceman," we see man's desperate need for sustaining illusions, even as the hollowness of those illusions, God included, is cruelly exposed.
The illusions are referred to as "pipe dreams" in the play's argot. During the 70-odd minutes that precede Hickey's arrival at Harry Hope's, we learn that the bar's alcohol-sotted inmates, a "Who's Who in Dipsomania" ranging from a defrocked Harvard-educated lawyer to prostitutes who think of themselves as "tarts," all cling to some such pathetic self-delusion: They are all masters at rationalizing yesterday's defeats and perpetuating tomorrow's false hopes. When the newly sobered-up Hickey appears, he vows to bring his old cronies peace and salvation from guilt by forcing them to put aside those lies for good - to face the fact that they never will graduate from the social ash heap. "Honesty is the best policy," Hickey proselytizes - not realizing that he, too, continues to cling to a pipe dream and that the destruction of that last illusion will bring no peace except that of the grave.
Like the characters in "Moon" and "Long Day's Journey" who share a bloodline to O'Neill's brother James, Hickey could have been written for Robards. In his three-piece suit and straw boater, with his flashing teeth and whorehouse bonhomie, the actor is the consummate salesman -a hard-selling, evangelical drummer whose all-American vulgarity becomes a kind of charisma. After that go-getting, finger-snapping self-assurance is shaken, Robards seems to be pouring decades of preparation (as indeed he is) into delineating Hickey's collapse. His chuckles (invariably punctuating the word happy) hang ghoulishly in the septic air; his eyes recede into deep, coal-black sockets; his feet shuffle under the weight of dread; his bray slurs and slides into an ashen croak. Once Robards reaches his marathon, self-immolating confessional of Act IV, he is the major-domo of the charnel house. As he sweatily expatiates his unspeakable, guilty secret - his hatred for his murdered wife - his Hickey seems to be repeatedly confronting his own pasty face in the mirror and recoiling in nauseated disgust at the sight.
It's hard to fathom how this performance could have been better in 1956 - or how Robards could ever have a better foil than Moffat, who plays Larry Slade. A onetime anarchist who has now taken "a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment," Larry is Hickey's most formidable antagonist among the pipe dreamers; he clings to the illusion of believing in nothing. But the atheist proves little match for the nihilist. "Be God, there's no hope!" Moffat cries out, writhing in his chair as he finally realizes that he is Hickey's "only real convert to death." From then on, Moffat's dignified body stiffens and his grizzled face drains of color, as if Larry were realizing Hickey's own wish of frying in the electric chair.
There are some other beautiful performances, too. Barnard Hughes brings a bleaker brew of his pixieish Irish whimsy and a wee, defeated voice to Hope, the proprietor who's been too frightened to leave his bar for 20 years. James Greene, with gloom-swollen eyes and knocking knees, is the saddest imaginable Jimmy Tomorrow, a has-been Boer War correspondent foolishly awaiting a comeback. The play's sporadic gallows humor is well served by John Pankow, as the insolent, bartending pimp, and Allen Swift, as a onetime circus bunko artist whose happiest reminiscence is of flimflamming his own late sister.
Roger Robinson, as the black gambler Joe Mott, and John Christopher Jones, as the father-hating lawyer Willie Oban, need only to edit out some excess staginess to sharpen their adept characterizations. While the others are merely adequate -and generally account for the flabbier interludes - the only seriously damaging performance comes from Paul McCrane, who doesn't capture the haunted or hunted qualities of the young stool pigeon (and Hickey alter ego) Parritt.
Although a bit at sea in such a cavernous house, Quintero's staging is meticulous down to the frayed shoelaces in Jane Greenwood's shabby costumes. As we tour the depths in Act I, the director seems to be choreographing to his own sepulchral water music. When Hickey presides over Hope's midnight birthday party in Act II, we get a macabre Antichrist's Last Supper. When Hickey forces the nocturnal pipe dreamers outdoors into the chaos of reality in Act III, the men scurry from the sunlight like cockroaches fleeing poison.
By the time Hickey gets to his last-act monologue, Hope's tenants are as comatose as they were at the beginning - only now, having temporarily lost their pipe dreams, they can't even find solace in anesthetizing themselves with booze anymore. As Robards waltzes dementedly about, we look into rows of shuddering eyes that, like ours, have seen O'Neill smash through the bedrock of life's lies to expose the bottomless, beckoning pit underneath.