Go to Homepage   The Iceman Cometh: Hope and Lies

 

A play by Eugene O'Neill, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (until July 17)
In Harry Hope's dimly lit bar live all the hard luck stories of 1912 New York. They range from the disillusioned former member of the American Anarchist movement to the bar owner himself, once a candidate for alderman. 

Everyone has a lie they tell themselves -- a lie that allows them to hope their tomorrows will be better. These pipe dreams and nickel-a-shot rotgut whiskey get them through their dismal days. 

They all wait for Hickey, their salesman buddy. The life of the party, Hickey always tells that joke about the salesman's wife who cheats with the iceman. Since Harry Hope celebrates his birthday tonight, the gang knows Hickey will join them for his periodic drunk. Right on schedule Hickey appears, ready to buy drinks for the house, just like always.  

He comes in like a house afire, yes, to buy drinks, but to sell something, too. Tonight he sells peace -- in short supply at Harry Hope's bar -- for a small price. Give up your pipe dreams, he urges, make 'em reality. Do what you've been promising you'd do for eons, and it'll free you from the weight of those hopeless dreams. 

While it doesn't surprise the audience that Hickey's hard sell meets resistance, surprises do lurk. Hickey's heart- and gut-wrenching revelation at the end of the play reveals that he, too, guards a crippling dream that will dog him to his grave.

For such depressing subject matter, The Iceman Cometh rivets the audience. Eugene O'Neill created such fascinating, funny, sad characters that one can't help wanting to know how it all turns out for them. To say nothing of the phenomenal performances given by the entire cast.  

Kevin Spacey as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman mesmerizes. His slick salesman's patter smacks of the revival house as he attempts to convert his barroom cronies. He skirts the truth, all the while claiming he's being straight with you. You know something underneath waits to tear him apart. Spacey plays the multi-layered Hickey like a virtuoso playing a violin. 

A virtuoso ably backed by an ensemble of star players. Paul Giamatti as the hapless Jimmy Tomorrow, Tim Pigott-Smith as the cynical ex-anarchist and Tony Danza as the bartender who runs tarts (not whores) on the side all deserve the highest praise. The entire cast nails their characters dead-on. At the same time, Tony-nominated director Howard Davies mines the play's humor without diminishing its tragedy. 

On a side note, much has been made about Spacey's magnanimity concerning this play. He, like all the actors, works for Equity scale. The cast dresses in a few large rooms -- no star's dressing room for the man who could certainly claim it. It's all for the love of the play, for going out every night and "getting another whack at it" to quote Spacey himself. That's what doing live theatre is all about.  

Jenny Buehler

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