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The lie of a pipedream: ‘The Iceman Cometh’ at Goodman Theatre

It’s difficult to find humor in a Eugene O’Neill play, but The Iceman Cometh was inspired by a vaudeville-era joke. In typical O’Neill fashion, the joke is mined down past the comedy to its tragic source in this nearly five-hour epic. From the same director that brought The Goodman’s production of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms to Broadway in 2009, comes this star-studded revival of The Iceman Cometh.  Featuring Brian Dennehy, who was last seen at the Goodman in Desire Under the Elms, and Broadway vet Nathan Lane who last appeared in Chicago in the pre-Broadway engagement of The Addams Family. 

The Iceman Cometh was originally published in 1939, but was not produced until 1946. By this time, O’Neill was already a famed playwright with three Pulitzer Prizes, a Nobel Prize and several successful plays produced on Broadway. Iceman like Long Day’s Journey into Night, takes place in 1912, a pivotal year for O’Neill, and like Long Day’s Journey, this play is strongly autobiographical. Instead of rehashing family drama, here O’Neill writes about the years he spent down-and-out in New York City under a heavy cloud of depression, following a messy divorce and fallout with his children. Relying on strong narrative structure, O’Neill’s characters struggle with addiction, poverty and the meaning of life when one is constantly postponing the pipedreams of tomorrow.

Falls and Dennehy are known for their past collaborations on O’Neill works at the Goodman, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2002, which also went on to Broadway. Dennehy plays central character Larry Slade, a one-time social activist of the working class, turned death-obsessed drunkard, whose final moment of revelation is as moving as it is haunting. Rounding out the cast of drunkards is saloon-owner Harry Hope, a reclusive hermit played by Stephen Ouimette. Ouimette startles the audience in several moments of pathetic outbursts of truths his clients wish to deny. The prostitutes played by Tara Sissom, Lee Stark and Kate Arrington are delightfully accurate and help break up the darkness of Harry Hope’s Saloon. John Douglas Thompson plays Joe Mott, a one-time proprietor of an African American gambling house. Thompson’s stirring portrayal of a displaced minority brings a whole new layer of complexity to this historical drama. Of course, no one will be displeased with Nathan Lane’s portrayal of Hickey, the seeming success of The Harry Hope Saloon, the sharp dresser who always has money to spread around. Hickey’s highly anticipated, annual visit this year brings not the usual pleasant tidings, but desperate sobriety. Lane’s natural stage presence works to his advantage as he sets up each of his run-down friends to fail, with the best of intentions, that cumulate into a lengthy, hair-raising monologue of truth and confrontation.

In four acts and four set changes, the audience is able to see the full scope of this bar many have made their homes. Time flies at Harry Hope’s Saloon in this faithful revival. Eugene O’Neill’s work is done justice to a T in moments so intense audiences won’t know whether to laugh or cry, regardless, they will be left with much to think about. There are no punches being pulled in this beautifully staged version of The Iceman Cometh. This production is ready for Broadway.

The Iceman Cometh has been extended through June 17th at the Goodman Theatre. Tickets range from $39 to $119 and can be purchased in person or online. Half-price tickets offered day-of for that evening’s performance. The Goodman Theatre is located in the heart of Chicago’s Loop Theatre District.