With a playing time well in excess of four hours -- due in part to O'Neill's fondness for repetitions of phrases and character moments -- the work is a challenge for directors, actors, and audiences as it tells the story of a group of alcoholic dreamers in a seamy 1912 dead-end bar and rooming house, living for the next drink and a "tomorrow" that never arrives.
Still, Iceman sings with O'Neill's finest rough-hewn poetry and character writing, as pungent and low-life as those characters. And director Robert Falls' grasp of the play's rich moments of comedy is one of the many reasons the evening never feels dull.
The central role is Hickey, a glad-handing, free-spending, hard-drinking salesman whose twice-yearly monumental binges are reasons for living for the down-and-out regulars at Harry Hope's bar. Hickey demands an actor of great physical stamina and charismatic appeal, and the gifted Nathan Lane proves once again that he has a heart of darkness deep within that so many great comedians always have had.
He's not without help -- most notably Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade, an aging former anarchist who serves as the play's Greek Chorus and the metaphysical counterpoint to Hickey. With his chiseled chin and bushy brows highlighted by Natasha Katz's golden-hued lighting, Dennehy is this production's bedrock, stalwart and mostly-silent, while hiding his own deep wounds and delusions.
While the play is realistic, Falls and his design team -- especially costumer Merrily Murray-Walsh -- give the production an exaggerated and almost-impressionistic look which creates a dream-like, smoky quality perfectly suited to the line that "every character walks between delusion and despair." For instance, the absence of sources of interior light (there are no lamps or chandeliers) adds a subtle mystical feeling to the show that feels just right.
Eugene O'Neill knew you have to live with people a long time to understand them. By the end of this often-elegiac and memorable production, we know Hickey and Slade and all the denizens of Harry Hopes' dead-end bar like the back of our hands.