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History is set for 'Iceman Cometh,' even as its future still is unsure

By Chris Jones

Tribune critic

2:42 PM CDT, June 14, 2012

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On Sunday, the iceman goeth. Unless you happen to be Nathan Lane's long-lost great-uncle from Tipperary, or come with your own pot of gold, good luck getting a ticket.

At press time, it was not yet clear whether Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre production goeth for good after this weekend or whether it cometh to Broadway. Broadway mogul Scott Rudin — who could be seen collecting a Tony Award for his revival of "Death of a Salesman" last weekend — has passed on his option to produce the show in New York. Rudin, who did not see the production in Chicago, doubtless figured out that "Iceman" is a tricky commercial prospect: a big cast, Chicago actors who would need housing, a likely limit of six shows a week and the kind of daunting running time that could end up costing so much overtime that the members of Local 1 could afford to buy Harry Hope's bar out from under the poor sap. In some ways, the most logical destination for this production would be London's National Theatre, which imported the Steppenwolf Theatre's similarly seminal production of "August: Osage County," and that is one of the very few noncommercial theaters in the world with the resources to restage this production.

Then again, this is the very rare Chicago show that showcases the city's famously intense actors and yet also comes with not one but two bona fide stars of the North American theater, Lane and Brian Dennehy. With its New York reviews already in the bag (mostly), "Iceman" is a prestige-producing play, and Broadway producers love making prestige plays. And for all the public talk of we-just-did-it-for-Chicago, there are some very ambitious and persuasive men, not the least being Dennehy, involved in this enterprise. Lane said in a recent public appearance that this was the work he was most proud of in his entire career — and that's a formidable career. So it's reasonable to assume that Lane would not be expecting the same level of financial consideration he enjoyed for "The Addams Family." I bet he'd work for scale, if the whole cast went. So some producer will surely figure out that this is all doable in a limited-run situation with modest salaries in a reasonably big house and if tickets are more like, say, $199 or $299 a pop. Given that many "Iceman" tickets commanded three figures and that people pay up to $300 for"Rock of Ages" on Broadway, that's not as outrageous as it sounds.

Assuming this comes together, it will once again be a big Chicago fall on Broadway, with the top-drawer Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"landing at the Booth Theatre in October and Debbie Bisno's new production of Craig Wright's heavily revised drama "Grace" also on tap at a theater yet to be announced, replete with Chicago director Dexter Bullard and longtime Chicago actor Michael Shannon in a lead role. One could easily imagine Shannon, Tracy Letts (in "Virginia Woolf"), Dennehy and Lane all vying for the best-actor Tony at next season's awards, with Carrie Coon (also in "Virginia Woolf") having a chance for best supporting actress. I'm making my reservations to see that come down.

But in the meantime, it's worth pausing to note that "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre will, whatever does or does not happen in the future, stand tall as one of the most significant productions in Chicago theater history. The ensemble acting in this production was utterly formidable in its human veracity and theatrical intensity — hauntingly so, in fact. I'm surely not alone in the way these performances have stayed with me these last few weeks. Frankly, I don't want to single out anyone, because the achievement was fundamentally collective. It was impossible to sit in a seat without knowing that you were watching a group of men and women doing the best work of their careers.

"Iceman" was also a further reminder of the dedicated audience for serious theater in this town. Tickets flew out the door, and very few seats emptied before the final curtain, even though it was close to midnight by then. Readers who've written to me have expressed their pride in the work. In the promotional run-up to the Olympics, I've been struck by how shrewdly Britain is emphasizing its role as an exporter of culture. Even if the importers end up being just those who went to the Goodman, "Iceman" was still a Chicago export easily on a par with deep-dish pizza.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib