Robert Falls’ revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” currently showing at The Goodman Theatre, has garnered a lot of buzz around town for its star billing: Nathan Lane’s come carpet-bagging in from Broadway to tackle the role of Hickey, the play’s drunken pipe dreamer turned sober bubble-burster. However, Lane is actually the lone weak point in what is otherwise a finely acted and deliberately paced (i.e. long but in a good way) production. Try as he might, Lane can’t quite shake his musical theatre past, whereas the rest of the cast members, led by Goodman perennial Brian Dennehy, are uniformly flawless in their embodiment of the hopelessly flawed.
For those not familiar with the plot, it’s pretty straightforward: ‘Twas the night before Harry Hope’s (Stephen Ouimette) birthday and all through his bar not a creature was stirring, because they were all drunk out of their minds. In walks Hickey, a former fixture now sobered up and preaching a self-written gospel: give up your pipe dreams and you will finally be free. Unfortunately, when these men (and women) with a today full of nothing are “liberated” from their delusions of tomorrows filled with somethings, they don’t take it quite as well as Hickey had hoped.
Even though Lane is a disappointment as Hickey, Dennehy is fantastic as Larry Slade, the bar’s resident philosopher. He creates a cranky, aching core around which the rest of the cast, save Lane, can build. Ouimette likewise gives a standout performance as Hope, flipping back and forth between jollity, melancholy, and explosive rage. Lastly, New Yorker John Douglas Thompson brings a brittle nobility to Joe Mott, the play’s lone African American character. There’s an entire lifetime of subjugated pride and resentment oozing out of him at every turn.
The massive set by Kevin Depinet (inspired by John Conlin’s design) dwarfs the actors from scene one. Its corpse green walls shoot upward out of view, like the entire play is taking place at the bottom of a grave. The lighting, by Natasha Katz, is fittingly dim for the play’s opening and closing acts and garishly bright during its middle parts, as though Hickey’s arrival is a bright, blinding light that passes over the scene, holds for a moment and then passes on, leaving Hope, Larry and Co. in the darkness from whence they came.