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by thomas connors | April 17, 2012 | People
Nathan Lane (left) and Brian Dennehy share a laugh while swapping showbiz stories.
More than 20 years after they first mounted Eugene O'Neill's classic play, the Goodman Theatre's director, Bob Falls, and Brian Dennehy team up again—but this time, they add Nathan Lane to the mix.
Bob Falls is mad about Eugene O'Neill, arguably America's greatest playwright. Over the past quarter of a century, Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, and creative cohort and actor Brian Dennehy, have made it their mission to explore O'Neill's work like nobody else in the country, mounting productions of A Touch of the Poet, Long Day's Journey into Night, Hughie, and Desire Under the Elms. Their first outing was The Iceman Cometh in 1990, O'Neill's hilarious but harrowing vision of lost souls clinging to their illusions as they hit the sauce in a dive bar. This month, the two team up with Tony and Emmy Award winner Nathan Lane to revisit this powerful story. Lane plays Hickey, the-hail-fellow-well-met, whose demons lead him to try his perverted best to disabuse his defeated friends of their own pipe dreams. Dennehy, who assumed that role in 1990, now portrays Larry Slade, a fellow who fights like hell to deflect Hickey's hype.
"This is the only other play I've done twice in my life—the other was The Tempest—and although it's one of my favorites, I would not have thought of doing it again if it were not for Brian and Nathan," reveals Falls. "I cannot approach O'Neill's plays unless I have a sense of who's going to be in them. Brian and Nathan were really the impetus for doing this again."
As these three Irish-Americans set off on the dark journey O'Neill has charted, Falls muses, "This play operates on so many levels. It captures all the contradictions of being human. It's about how one leads one's life, the need to form relationships, and the fear of intimacy. It's just thrilling to be in the presence of a play this ambitious." And amid much laughter and ribbing, Dennehy and Lane make it clear they couldn't agree more.
You two are old pals. How did you meet?
NATHAN LANE: Through a friend. I went out to LA in 1980. I was part of a comedy team. My partner was a friend of Mr. Dennehy's roommate in West Hollywood. We won't comment on that.
You've never appeared together before; what is your favorite bit of work the other has done?
NL: Death of a Salesman would certainly be at the top of the list. I remember I went back to see [Brian] afterward. His dressing room looked like a frat house. And I broke out in tears, because it was an incredibly powerful production and a monumental performance.
BRIAN DENNEHY: He was weeping because of all the shit he'd seen me do before. For me, [it was] two shows I saw Nathan do—The Lisbon Traviata and Butley—both of which are funny, but also very serious and not necessarily parts people refer to when they talk about Nathan.
MA: Speaking of that, Mr. Lane, do you suppose your fans will be surprised by your decision to take on Iceman?
NL: For people who only know [me from] things like The Producers or The Birdcage, it will be a surprise. But if, for some reason, anyone has followed all I've been doing in the theater, it will be less of a surprise.
Why this role now?
NL: I have always loved the play. But also, this is coming at a time in my life when I need to do something very challenging and use muscles I have not used in a very long time. I'm reading a biography of Spencer Tracy right now, and he sort of laughs about Katharine Hepburn's need to go off to do plays. She says, "I'd rather fail at something really difficult than succeed at something that comes easily." This is what I've been feeling. I'd read an interview with Brian and Bob in which they were tossing around ideas of what they might do next and one of them was revisiting Iceman. So I e-mailed Bob and just put it out there that I'd love to be considered for this part.
BD: So we considered him.
NL: And fortunately they agreed to take a risk.
BD: Oh, why not? You'll be all right.
NL: You know what's funny? When I'm doing what people expect me to do, comedy or the musical theater, they always write, "There's a very dark side to Nathan." So now that I'm really doing what I was born to do as a self-destructive Irish Catholic, they say, "But he does comedy. He's a clown." You can't win. So ultimately this has to be about just doing the play, just having the experience of climbing this mountain.
BD: This play provides an actor the opportunity to get the most rewarding response you can get in a theater, which is silence. Absolute silence. Absolute attention. You're more likely to get that in Chicago than anywhere else, because those audiences want to be there. They want to be a part of it. You can't come to an O'Neill [play] and not be prepared to be a part of it. We're not going to get out there and tap dance in your lap.
Does this play cut close to home?
BD: We both have flirted with—more than flirted, been engaged to—self-destructiveness. Me probably more than [Nathan]. We used to get blasted. That's no secret to anybody who knows us. So we are not unaware of what O'Neill is writing about.
Do you still indulge?
BD: I might have a glass or two of wine once in awhile, but I never go near the hard stuff anymore.
NL: I still have an occasional drink—just as much as Mr. Dennehy will.
You haven't worked together before. Any worry that this might be like traveling with a friend for the first time and discovering he's no fun on the road?
NL: I'm not nervous about that. I've got my own problems to worry about.
BD: Yeah, you've got enough to worry about. The thing about this guy is, unlike almost any other actor, including myself: He's born to play that part.
NL: Look, we don't want to oversell this.
BD: Well, it's not that you're a miserable bastard, but you're in touch with [that side of yourself].
NL: There are many actors who could play this. But the things that made me develop a sense of humor and become adept at comedy are some of the things that make me right for this play.
BD: He's right. Hickey is an entertainer.
NL: I'm Irish Catholic. That's where it starts.
BD: As Pete Hamill says, "There's no such thing as an ex-Catholic." But people are not aware of how funny Hickey is right from the top.
NL: Ken Branagh, whom I've worked with and become friends with, said to me, "You just have to do it. Who the hell cares what they say? Don't worry about that. It will be life-changing." So all of that was swirling in my head and my gut and I said it may sound crazy, but…
BD: It doesn't. When Bob mentioned it to me…
NL: You didn't seem to believe I was actually going to do it.
BD: Yeah, well why would you? You've got everything anybody wants in this business—enormous success, making a lot of money. Why would you want to bust your ass in Chicago for a thousand bucks a week?
NL: All anybody says is, "When will it come to New York?" That's not what this is about. We just want to do the play. I couldn't be more thrilled to be with this group of actors and the fact that Bob has generously allowed me to do this is something I will never forget.
Like so much of O'Neill's work, Iceman examines the illusions and delusions we all rely on to make it through life. What are your pipe dreams?
NL: I'm living my pipe dream. I am doing Iceman playing Hickey. I am going out the barroom door and into the sunlight.
BD: My pipe dream is that I'm going to come up with a year's tuition to Syracuse University in the next six months.
The Iceman Cometh runs April 21-June 10 at the Goodman Theatre. Tickets start at $39.50. 170 N. Dearborn St., 312-443-3800
photography by Gregg Delman
Grooming by Joanna Pensinger for exclusive artists/dior homme; suits, Brioni.
Shot on location at Ward iii, NYC
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