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As I was settling into my seat at the performance of The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre, the woman sitting behind me said loudly to her companion, “I think this is the same place we sat in during The Addams Family.” Ok now, wrong theater, honey.  And wrong frame of mind to have at The Iceman Cometh, Robert Fall’s mammoth, demanding production of Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth, demanding play about a group of drunken down-and-outs in 1912 New York City given one brief, final ray of hope to reclaim their lives and redeem themselves by a jovial, tenacious traveling salesman, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, who turns out to have secrets of his own.  It was going to be a long four hours and forty minutes for this woman and for us sitting around her if she thought Nathan Lane’s Hickey would be anything remotely resembling The Addams Family’s Gomez or The Producers’ Max Bialystock or even The Birdcage’s Albert, all iconic Lane roles.  But like the rest of the packed house that night at the Goodman, this person, bless her soul, stuck it out for the entire nearly five hour production, entranced, I would hope, by the power of O’Neill’s language; and the searing, impeccable interpretation of these words from Falls, his thoughtful designers, and an unsurpassable, astounding cast, including Lane whose ultimately gut-wrenching, indelible Hickey was truly memorable – a triumph in a role sometimes referred to as the Mt. Everest of American theatrical roles.

Even I, who pride myself on being open-minded to all the crazy, incongruous possibilities in theater, had to do a double-take when I first read that Lane would play Hickey to Brian Dennehy’s Larry Slade in a new Iceman production to be directed by Falls.  I thought it was the set-up for a Funny or Die webisode. Then I remembered that although Lane is a national musical theater treasure, he also cut his teeth on all those Terence McNally plays such as The Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valour! Compassion!  Still, doing McNally is about as similar to doing O’Neill as swimming a relay is to diving off a 10 meter platform. They both involve water, but the skillsets and level of mastery, not to mention degree of difficulty, are different.  So admittedly, I came with a little bit of trepidation to the Goodman.

Well, I shouldn’t have worried because this Iceman production is magnificent.  O’Neill’s play is not for everyone: it’s very lengthy, very talky, very depressing, and very insistent on the oversell of the word “pipe dream” to describe illusions and dishonesty (after the 1,345th mention of the phrase, I seriously wanted to down a can of petrol). But Falls directs the play tightly so that the four acts go trotting by (believe me, I have seen some recent 90 minute productions in Chicago that felt like they were longer than this nearly five hour staging).  And he brings out the humor in the piece.  Falls also creates stunning stage pictures such as the opening sequence which starts in darkness and slowly turns into daylight as the characters are introduced, or the final act in which most of the characters are seated by themselves in bar tables, lit in piercing melancholy like an F.W. Murnau silent film. Natasha Katz’s lighting, a great combination of dreamy daylight and enveloping shadows, is marvelous, and Kevin Depinet’s breathtaking set design (especially in a perspective-heightened Act Three) is at that intriguing middleground between stylized and naturalism (I love the placement of the window high up on the wall in Act 4 which almost functions as a visual metaphor for the characters’ inability to escape their heartbreaking stupor).

The great achievement of this production though, for me, is the incomparable performances that Falls creates together with his ensemble.  The key to survive Iceman’s length for an audience member is to get invested in the characters, some of the most complex ones written by an American playwright. The 18 person cast, comprised mostly of Chicago-based actors, perfect down to the last expressively articulate gesture and emotion-packed inflection, will return that investment a thousandfold. The most indelible for me though include Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope, the owner of the boarding-house/bar that the characters all live in, painfully, angrily delusional and grasping at false memories of his dead wife; the stunning, heart-stopping John Douglas Thompson as the former casino owner Joe Mott, in a performance that blows everyone out of the theater and deposits us north of Montrose avenue, showcasing the complicated existence of a black man in a racially-fraught society; and John Hoogenakker, an actor I have followed for years, here creating a meticulously-detailed characterization of former Harvard student Willie Oban, whose deep-seated insecurities prevent him from having the illustrious life of someone with his educational pedigree can have in a socially-conscious society such as New York in 1912.

Then of course there are Dennehy and Lane.  Dennehy, who played Hickey in Falls’ 1990 Goodman production that transferred to Broadway, is excellent as the cynical, unwavering former anarchist, Larry Slade.  I love how he commands the stage even if he is just sitting at the table with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.  Slade, as the den father of the despairing drunks, is the linchpin to Hickey’s plan: if the tough Slade who seems to have no more hope in his body is inspired by Hickey, then it will be easy enough to convince the rest of the pack to make better lives for themselves.  And Lane’s Hickey sells his plan grandly: initially flirting and joking like the great salesman he is, and then turning into a tormenting, hectoring, tough-loving combination social-worker/prison warden/best friend. Lane is brilliant in these scenes – demonstrating the grace, the radiance, and the peerless comedic skills that he is famous for.  Then Act Four arrives and Hickey’s famous, 40 minute long monologue. Lane, careening from anger and self-hatred to delusional behavior rationalization to pleading with the other characters to understand and exonerate him is unforgettable.  It is a physically, vocally, emotionally strenuous monologue, and man, Lane delivers it with high stakes: raw, passionate, bombastic, showing depths of pain that is astounding when you think that this is the same guy who created the character of the life-affirming con man Max Bialystock.

After the rave reviews that this production has received, talk about a Broadway transfer has surfaced, despite the fact that Lane had said he only wants to do this production in Chicago.  And I don’t blame him – this The Iceman Cometh is an uncompromising production that Chicago audiences gave a rousing standing ovation to after an emotionally and intellectually exhausting four hours and forty minutes.  I don’t think those lining up to see Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark would do the same.

The Iceman Cometh is onstage at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., until June 17. Tickets are scarce, so get yours now!

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