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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Iceman Cometh in Production

Photo: Liz Lauren
by Steve Scott

The Iceman Cometh is often regarded as a modern masterpiece, but like many great works of art it was eschewed by audiences before eventually achieving popular and critical acclaim. Even its progression from page to stage got off to a slow start: although Eugene O’Neill had completed the initial draft of The Iceman Cometh by late 1939, the play wouldn’t make its official premiere for nearly seven years, due both to the author’s failing health and his reluctance to produce anything during the “damned world debacle” of World War II. But by the winter of 1946, O’Neill’s spirits had revived to the point that he once again looked forward to the rigors of rehearsal and production; by the spring, plans for the New York debut of Iceman were under way. The playwright had initially championed actor/director Eddie Dowling to both direct the production and play the central role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, after viewing Dowling’s triumphant work in staging and starring in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. Soon after work on O’Neill’s play began, however, Dowling realized that he couldn’t do both, and he engaged former vaudevillian and film character actor James Barton (formerly hired for the role of Harry Hope) for the daunting role. By all reports, Barton was overwhelmed by the demands of the part, and had difficulties both learning and delivering Hickey’s mammoth confessional monologue in act four. On opening night, October 9, he also spent the dinner intermission entertaining friends in his dressing room, leaving him exhausted and nearly voiceless by the play’s climax. Perhaps as a result, opening night notices were mixed, and the production ran for a disappointingly short run of 136 performances.

Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane. Photo: Liz Lauren
A decade later Iceman returned, via a muscular revival off Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre. Vibrantly directed by JosĂ© Quintero (a graduate of the Goodman School of Drama), the new production featured the nearly unknown 33-year-old actor Jason Robards, Jr., as Hickey, and his towering performance soon became the stuff of legend. Critics, who 10 years earlier had been put off by the play’s absurdist blend of boisterous comedy and stark tragedy, now hailed The Iceman Cometh as O’Neill’s masterpiece, and helped restore the playwright’s somewhat faltering reputation as America’s greatest dramatist. Quintero and Robards became widely acknowledged as O’Neill’s master interpreters, and the production was one of the bona fide hits of the 1956 theater season. A somewhat truncated version of the production was telecast on CBS’ Play of the Week in 1960; Robards would again assay the role of Hickey in a 1985 revival, again under Quintero’s direction.

Since then a handful of productions have further established The Iceman Cometh as one of the greatest of American dramas. In 1973, producer Ely Landau chose the play as the initial offering in his American Film Theatre (AFT) series, an attempt to bring classic plays to the screen; the AFT version was directed by John Frankenheimer and featured such screen notables as Robert Ryan, Fredric March, a 23-year-old Jeff Bridges, and Lee Marvin, whose cynical, world-weary take on Hickey proved to be critically controversial. The following year, another Circle in the Square production (this time at the theater’s uptown Broadway space) featured James Earl Jones as the first African-American Hickey (Jones’ father had played the character Joe Mott in the 1956 incarnation of Iceman). Brian Dennehy brought both an infectious bonhomie and a terrifying rage to his portrayal of the doomed salesman in Robert Falls’ 1990 Goodman Theatre production, which also featured Jerome Kilty, James Cromwell, and future theater notables Denis O’Hare and Hope Davis. The last major American revival of The Iceman Cometh originated at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1998, with Kevin Spacey as Hickey under the direction of Howard Davies; it came to Broadway the next season for a limited three-month run.

Reprinted with permission by Goodman Theatre Producer Steve Scott.

Goodman Theatre’s production of The Iceman Cometh, directed by Robert Falls, runs at the BAM Harvey from Feb 5 to Mar 15.

This production was the Goodman’s most successful show in the theater’s 87-year history, and was seen by more than 42,000 people in Chicago over the course of a 2012 50-performance run. The New York Times’ critic said it featured “as many great performances as I’ve seen in a single show for years.”

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