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The Pipe Dream Cometh

February 23, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

I'm impressed by the number of people in their 20s who have been blown away by Jose Quintero's revival of "The Iceman Cometh" at the Doolittle Theatre.

After all, this is the generation that grew up pushing the fast-forward button, the generation that's not supposed to be able to keep its minds on anything for more than 90 seconds. What have they to do with a play that runs (counting intermissions) for five hours?

One answer might be that this is also the generation that has learned from TV how to dip in and out of a story, certainly a valuable skill when watching O'Neill, who always says everything twice. Selective inattention is excellent strategy at "Iceman," particularly during that long first act.

A deeper answer might be that O'Neill's gravity strikes young people as novel and impressive--a tone of voice they're not used to in a time that stresses the importance of not taking anything too seriously, even if you believe in it.

Even a middle-age theater critic can find refreshment in O'Neill's inability to shrug at life, even when he thinks he's doing just that. If he repeats himself in "Iceman," it's because he's talking from experience and because he wants the message to sink in. Walking around the Doolittle's art gallery during intermission, you find trinkets that have nothing to say except "Aren't I amusing?" O'Neill doesn't want to amuse you. He wants to improve you.

But not to hype you. That, in fact, is what he's saying in "Iceman." Beware the prophet. Suspect the savior. Abjure the man who has seen the light. Your pipe dreams are small change next to his, and a lot less dangerous.

O'Neill's pipe-dreamer is named Hickey. He's a fully-realized American type, particularly as played by Jason Robards--the traveling salesman who tips his straw hat, sells the Eskimo chief a new icebox and waltzes off with the chief's daughter. Take him one step further and he's Prof. Harold Hill.

But writing in 1939 it's possible that O'Neill was also thinking about another master salesman named Hitler and the mischief that his pipe dream was about to do. Watching the play in the 1980s, the viewer can come up with any number of other great communicators since '39 who led their people into disaster. As a political allegory, "Iceman" is distressingly to the point.

Quintero's staging also sees it as a religious allegory. It's easy to smile at Ph.D. theses citing 33 reasons why Hickey is a Christ symbol. But it's less easy after seeing this revival. Without pretension, Ben Edwards' barroom set does suggest the bleak upper room where Christ met the disciples--and Robards certainly has an unearthly power over his rummy pals.

This Christ, however, turns booze into water (at least it seems to lose its kick) and teaches his disciples that the way to salvation is to realize that one is damned. Happily, he is shown up as a madman at the end. But is he? Since it's to everybody's interest to believe so, they do. But the darkest irony of the play is that Hickey, from O'Neill's point of view, speaks the truth.

But as Larry Slade, the play's Doubting Thomas, points out: "The truth has no bearing on anything." Hearing actor Donald Moffat read the line, there's no doubt that O'Neill believed this as well. Again, young people respond to the novelty of a man who refuses to prevaricate. They are used to the flip cynicism of "Saturday Night Live." They have had very little experience with a rock-bottom pessimism. There something bracing about it.

Yet O'Neill never writes off his characters. Even if the universe is meaningless, they count for something in it. The point was beautifully caught by the last image of Sidney Lumet's film of "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--the camera moving back, back, back, until the family dinner table is a point of light surrounded by deep space. Quintero and his designers get something of that effect at the Doolittle, where Harry Hope's tavern seems to hang in a void (Thomas Skelton's lighting is vital here.)

Without departing from the vernacular--certainly Quintero's actors don't try for anything fancy--the solemnity of the staging underscores the fact that O'Neill is dealing with root issues here, with the same intense concern, if none of the faith, that marks the great medieval mystery plays like "Everyman." It's akin to the concentration of the surgeon, and the audience gets caught up in it, time of night be damned.

O'Neill was also grimly true to what he knew about his own mind when he wrote Hickey's last-act soliloquy, more harrowing in Robards' rendition these days than it was when the actor first did the play 30 years ago. To illustrate his gospel, Hickey tells the gang why he found it necessary to elevate his late wife, Evelyn, into a happier plane of existence.

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