Many people, including me, believe The Iceman Cometh is Eugene O'Neil's best play, even better than Long Day's Journey into Night. Iceman is one of the deepest dives into the American psyche ever put on stage. The bad news about the Broadway Theater Archive DVD (originally released as a teleplay by CBS in 1960) is that its production values are primitive. The good news is that this Sidney Lumet television version is based on Jose Quintero's definitive 1956 Broadway production. The best news is that Jason Robards reprises his Broadway role as Hickey.
The setting is Harry Hope's saloon, and the year is 1912. Harry's regulars, a diverse lot of misfits and failures, spend their days drinking and dreaming of the things they're going to do when they get right again. Into their midst bursts the drummer Hickey, right on time for his annual bender. But this year Hickey's different. He's not drinking; he's not making his usual jokes about finding his wife in bed with the iceman; and he's on a mission to help Harry's regulars wise up and let go of their pipe dreams.
Hickey uses his salesman's pep and charm to convince his old drinking buddies to pick up the burdens they set down in favor of gin-induced oblivion. The toughest nut for Hickey to crack is Larry, a former labor radical who claims to be sick of life and through with caring about other people. Larry has his own distraction. Don, the son of Larry's old girlfriend, has shown up bearing a load of guilt he wants Larry to help him carry. Larry's mask of indifference keeps slipping, and he keeps trying to push it back into place.
Over four mesmerizing acts we see what happens to Harry's little community when they cast off their illusions. We learn why Hickey's changed, and why it's so important to him that the others wise up, just like he has.
With one glaring exception, the large cast is excellent. Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope and Myron McCormack as Larry anchor the rolling chaos of the saloon. Tom Pedi as the bartender Rocky provides a rude energy that keeps things moving. Jason Robards lit up the theater world when he played Hickey on Broadway. His is the definitive portrayal, one of the great turns on the American stage. Hickey's final speech, about how he overcame his own pipe dreams, is worth the price of the DVD by itself. The glaring exception is Don, played by a very young Robert Redford. Don is a difficult part, a weak man who's done an unsavory thing, for whom we're supposed to feel pity. Redford just isn't up to it, which drags down this part of the plot.
O'Neil is showing us the American Century in embryo. Its bottom social layer was awhirl in vague dreams and murderous rages, filled with people fighting a desperate rear guard action against despair. O'Neil isn't judging here, simply trying to understand. His language and his compassion for these characters pin the play down in time and space. His insight that human illusions are both necessary and lethal give the play universal implications.
Iceman has been revived several times since this version aired. I'm not sure modern American actors can get to the emotional core of this play any more. For all of its criminality, all the boozing and profanity and violence, there's innocence in these characters, and a sweetness in the way they care for one another that's probably passed out of American life. Mid-century America still had it to some degree, which is why this is the version of Iceman you want to see.