NEW YORK — "Make it fast," says the bartender, serving whiskey on the sly to a customer at the beginning of Eugene O'Neill's four-hour, 20-minute bender "The Iceman Cometh." O'Neill did not, in fact, make it fast. Yet Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Hickey--the late-arriving death of the party, peddling his brand of truth serum to his rummy pals at Harry Hope's saloon--takes that opening line very much to heart.
With the true daring of a first-rate actor, Spacey rattles off whole passages of a forbiddingly difficult play, as if broadcasting a kind of tormented horse race. Speed, broken by odd, striking moments of calm, is the hallmark of Spacey's "bughouse preacher." From the moment he bursts through the doors of scenic designer Bob Crowley's wonderful half-shell of a Manhattan barroom with a hearty "Hello, gang!" Spacey lets us know whom we're in for. Without letting on much of anything.
Sometimes the performance is all speed. It's not a perfect portrayal, or production, or (certainly) a play. All three working together, however, graced by a few choice performances beyond Spacey's, add up to plenty. You're grateful for the chance to see "Iceman" on Broadway in this production that opened Thursday, following Spacey's acclaimed performance as Hickey in London, in director Howard Davies' earlier Almeida Theatre Company staging.
As O'Neill makes symbolically clear over and over, Hickey is the iceman, promising a better life for his fallen, alcoholic comrades if they're willing to eliminate their infernal "pipe dreams." The phrase has become the play's grand cliche. O'Neill, who attempted suicide in a gin mill like Harry Hope's in 1912 (the year of the play), goes on about pipe dreams--in the full text, he invokes the phrase 45 times--even more than he goes on about "dat ole davil, sea" in an earlier saloon play, "Anna Christie."
In films such as "The Usual Suspects"--for which Spacey won an Oscar--"Seven" and "L.A. Confidential," he has proven extremely deft at inhabiting a role, even as he slinks around its edges. Here, when Hickey delivers the line about his late wife's fatally forgiving nature, about "disgust having a battle in her eyes with love," it's complicated by Spacey's own tensions and contradictions as an actor. In his performance, you sense a man profoundly disengaged--a "grandstand foolosopher," as he labels Larry Slade, the aging anarchist. Yet Hickey can't help but throw himself a little truth-or-dare party on the way out.
It can't be easy for any actor as good at irony as Spacey is to tap into genuine anguish. The straw-hatted Spacey, whose face is "round and smooth and big-boyish" just as O'Neill's windy description of Hickey calls for, could use a dash more of the straight dope. (This play speaks the lingo of addiction; pipe dreams, after all, come from the opium pipe.) He's not going for the cathartic fury Jason Robards brought to the role, beginning with the seminal Circle in the Square production, three years after O'Neill's death. (I say this having seen only a tape of the 1960 television version with Robards.)
But Spacey offers a sly, fully realized alternative to Robards' approach. In photographs and in the TV version, Robards' Hickey resembles a man wearing two masks, the stylized faces of tragedy and comedy, one superimposed on the other. Spacey offers a third, more opaque one.
Hickey plays host to O'Neill's consciously colorful characters--a regular "Who's Who in Dipsomania," as one of them calls it. The bartender, Rocky (Tony Danza), is in charge of three prostitutes (Catherine Kellner, Dina Spybey, Katie Finneran), though if anyone calls him a pimp, he's ready to retaliate. Ex-anarchist Larry (Tim Pigott-Smith) has in the seething Hugo (Stephen Singer, a witty, artful mood-swinger) a comrade from the old days.
Don Parritt (Robert Sean Leonard), the son of an Emma Goldman-like radical, has tracked down Larry, his mother's ex-lover, in New York. The kid hasn't merely a secret, but A Big Fat Guilty One, which Hickey can spot in a second. It's not hard for us, either; the Larry/Parritt plot strand is the play's most frayed.
All comers get their sodden say in the place named for Harry Hope (James Hazeldine). There's a truly scary streak of misogyny at work in "Iceman" that's partly by design and partly messier, more uncontained and revealing. Several characters' dreams go up in smoke when they, at long last, admit to themselves and the world how much contempt they had for the women in their lives.
With a savvy hand, director Davies manages to keep the right laughs coming, and the wrong ones at bay. The atmosphere created here steers clear of nostalgia. The look isn't "Ragtime"; when we first see these guys passed out, before a word is said, it's like something ripped from a turn-of-the-century police blotter.