Nathan Lane Scales a Theatrical Everest in Chicago's The Iceman Cometh

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20 Apr 2012

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy in rehearsal at Chicago's Goodman.
Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy in rehearsal at Chicago's Goodman.
Liz Lauren

Tony Award winner Nathan Lane takes on the role of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill's epic about booze and illusion, April 21-June 17 at the Goodman Theatre.

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"I'm terrified," Nathan Lane says. "But I think that's really healthy. I wanted to be scared again. I wanted to scare myself. And I'm very grateful to be able to do it."

Lane is talking about playing Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, the hardware salesman who visits the alcohol-ridden denizens of Harry Hope's saloon in The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill's four-hour-long classic. It's Lane's first attempt at a major O'Neill role.

He co-stars at Chicago's Goodman Theatre with O'Neill veteran Brian Dennehy, who portrays Larry Slade, the anarchist who frequently emotes about the need for illusion, the "pipe dream" that he (and O'Neill) says we all need in order to survive. The director is Robert Falls, the Goodman's artistic director, who has often teamed with Dennehy on O'Neill and other great playwrights.



Dennehy and Falls' partnerships include the 2003 Tony-winning revival of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which Dennehy won a Best Actor Tony. Dennehy also won one in 1999, and Falls won for Best Director, for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The two also collaborated on a 1990 Iceman at the Goodman in which Dennehy played Hickey.

Lane's many credits include The Producers, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (he won a Tony for both), Guys and Dolls, Waiting for Godot and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

Why O'Neill? "I'm Irish Catholic," Lane says. "That has a lot to do with it. But I've always loved this play," which was first staged in 1946.

Dennehy in rehearsal
photo by Liz Lauren

He has long wanted to collaborate with Dennehy and Falls. "I read an interview with Bob and Brian where they were talking about revisiting this play with Brian playing Larry Slade. I sent an e-mail to Bob and said that I would love to do it — and that this is why I think I'm right for it. Not only am I compelled by the play but I needed to do this for myself as an actor and a person. It's like climbing Mount Everest. I need to climb Everest."

Lane says he "certainly can relate to what Hickey goes through. My family was dysfunctional, to say the least. My mother was manic-depressive. My father was an alcoholic. Every one of my mother's siblings was alcoholic. I've had issues with alcohol over the years. I certainly knew about self-loathing and self-destruction and a suppressed rage for a long time. Finally, I just felt I want to explore that. I've been to therapy, but now I need to explore that in my work — to use muscles I don't very often get to use."

It's a huge leap for him, he says, "because it's one of the most difficult plays ever written. And yet there's something about it that feels very familiar. Just the notion of how we desperately need our illusions in order to live, to get through the day."

For some theatregoers, Lane acknowledges, the idea of him in this role "will appear to be a shock, or a surprise," especially "for people who only know a handful of roles I've done, whether in The Producers or the movie 'The Birdcage.' But I think people who've followed my theatre work and seen maybe some of the Terrence McNally plays have seen other sides to me." Read more about Nathan Lane's Broadway career in the Playbill Vault.

The bottom line, though, is "you don't want to go to your grave saying to yourself, 'When I had the opportunity to say to someone, Would you do this?, and they said yes, I was too frightened.'"

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Read about the original 1946 Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh in the Playbill Vault. The play was famously rediscovered a decade later — in 1956, three years after the playwright's death — in an Off-Broadway production by Circle in the Square Theatre. Jose Quintero directed; Jason Robards starred as Theodore Hickman. It would become an iconic role for Robards.

Read more about Eugene O'Neill's career in the Playbill Vault