Two Journeys Into O’Neill, via email (NY Times)

The New York Times

June 14, 2012

Two Journeys Into O’Neill, via E-Mail

Compiled by SCOTT HELLER

IN two time zones on two continents, the actors Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf have been taking on formidable roles that sit at the center of the American theatrical canon. Mr. Lane, a two-time Tony winner and beloved musical-comedy star, was Theodore Hickman, known as Hickey, the hardware salesman who strips away the illusions that sustain the seedy New York bar dwellers in Eugene O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Ms. Metcalf, who earned some of the best reviews of her career in “The Other Place” last year Off Broadway, is the morphine-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at the Apollo Theater in London.

Mr. Lane’s run concludes on Sunday, while Ms. Metcalf continues through the summer. During breaks in their schedules, the actors — who co-starred on Broadway in David Mamet’s “November” — agreed to talk with each other by e-mail about preshow preparation, working far from home and what it’s like to tackle O’Neill for the first time. Here are excerpts from a recent weekend’s conversation as edited by Scott Heller. •

Darling —

I’m eating a little something to get me through my five-hour play. You’ve probably just finished. How should we begin?


Hi, Mister!

Just got home. About to sit down in front of the telly with a well-earned glass of red!

You’re having “a little something” to eat. I’m curious. What’s your preshow ritual, given that it’s a five-hour marathon? According to my calculations, it’s 5:30 Chicago time, and your show is at 7. Unless they’ve put you up very near the theater, I’m guessing you’re already in your dressing room. Sushi?

Have a great show. Talk tomorrow.

Laurie in London

Hi, Honey —

My preshow ritual really involves the entire day leading up to the play. I think about it when I go to bed, and when I wake up in the morning. I can’t do too much, I try to be quiet, except for a vocal warm-up. If I’m good, I go to the gym, or swim a little, maybe read or watch a little television. Often I go back to the play, reading my scenes, or research articles and books about O’Neill. I have to eat around 5, nothing heavy, but enough fuel to get me through to 11:50. I get to the theater around 5:45; I like to get dressed and ready early, even though I don’t enter until an hour and 10 minutes into the first act, which gives me plenty of time to think about where I’ve been, why I’m going to the bar, what I want and how I’m going to get it.

Hickey has a huge and complicated back story. Sometimes I talk to the cast before the play begins. Sometimes I let my entrance be the first time they see me. Brian [Dennehy, who plays Larry Slade] and I always have a little preshow chat about the day’s events, and how tired we are. I listen to the play a bit, go over the first scene, occasionally I walk around backstage thinking about Hickey’s inner monologue as he walks all the way from Queens to the West Village. Sometimes I just sit and think in my dressing room.

I always check in with Kate Arrington and Marc Grapey, who play Cora and Chuck, before they go on. They mention seeing Hickey outside the bar. We always say this is the longest hour of our lives. Then Sal Inzerillo says, “Here’s the old son of a bitch!,” and I’m on.

But to answer your question, no, I don’t eat sushi, I don’t like raw fish.


I’m just spitballing here, but were there any wrong turns/blind alleys you took during rehearsals? I had so many.


I remember rehearsing Hickey’s first entrance, which is so crucial, when he gives a performance of his old self to put everyone in the bar at ease. There was one image I wanted to use, which combined something [the character] Joe Mott describes — about dreaming that Hickey walked in the bar flashing a big bankroll — and something Harry says earlier about Rocky and Chuck cheating him by throwing all the money in the air and whatever doesn’t stick to the ceiling is his share. So I wanted to flash a big bankroll, fan myself with it and then, when I said, “Hello, gang!,” throw it up in the air as I launched into song.

That seemed to work, but the entrance into the back room itself, a very small space, didn’t feel right, until I finally went back to O’Neill’s description, and just walked in beaming at them all and taking in their affection. As always, simpler was better.

Even after months of preparation you don’t really start to figure something like this out until you’re in front of an audience. You need time. In some ways just to get through the terror of taking this on, I think I had mapped it out too much and needed to let go of everything and let the play happen to me more.

I have to lie down in a fetal position and weep right now, but I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, what’s your biggest challenge in playing Mary? Colleen Dewhurst said there’s no safety net when you play O’Neill; Jason Robards said you have to be at your very best at all times, and if you are, it will work. What do you think?


Theodore Hickman, Hardware Salesman

Before the show I like to get in a yoga class, eat a late lunch (I’ve never been comfortable doing a show on a full stomach — slightly hungry is best) and walk to the theater going over my lines out loud, which provokes more than a few stares. And, like you, I love to get to the theater early. I pin-curl my hair and get ready to host the nightly preshow Bananagrams game in a room off my dressing room. It brings out a competitiveness in me that I’m not proud of.

At half-hour the wig goes on, followed by heavy stockings, corset, posterior padding, petticoat, skirt, blouse with one million little snaps and buttons, and a locket I added with James Tyrone’s picture inside.

Finally my hand prosthetics are glued on. There are so many references to Mary’s hands — how painful the rheumatoid arthritis is and how crippled and swollen her fingers are — and the prosthetics look amazing. The knuckles are built up, and they keep my pinkie and ring fingers curled under. I normally gesture a lot onstage, but this is restrictive and helps sell the fact that she’s embarrassed by her hands.

The biggest challenge was to differentiate the levels of her morphine use. Knowing how far under the influence she is at the end (not recognizing the family, reliving an incident she had as a young girl), I worked backward. The first scene is the only time the audience sees Mary sober, and I try to give her liveliness, a sense of humor, a loving and physical relationship with her husband and a maternal warmth toward her sons. (Further to fall, don’t ya know.) At the next entrance, I’m hoping that the audience isn’t sure if she has relapsed or not, just as the boys aren’t sure.

By the time the family realizes she is on morphine again, I start adding in telltale symptoms. All simple enough on paper, but a bitch to work out in the rehearsal room! It’s all in the details, no?


Mary Tyrone, Stay-at-Home Mom

Hey There, Fellow American —

Just watched the Tonys with [the costume designer] Ann Roth and [the actress] Deb Monk, who sweetly flew in to see “Iceman.” We ordered room service, and made a lot of jokes, which is the only way to sit through an awards show.

Now where were we? Oh yes, posterior padding and hand prosthetics? Are you playing Mary Tyrone or Mammy Yokum? But seriously, this is what comes of looking eternally youthful, Miss Laurie Metcalf.

Let’s now hear from our author, Eugene O’Neill, in a letter to producer Lawrence Langner about “Iceman”: “There are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. Those moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can be possibly said.” I think of this often. That is the job for all of us in this play, no small task, especially for yours truly.

The amazing thing about O’Neill is that he’s daring you to go as far as he does, to jump off the cliff with him into the deepest and darkest of places. And if you’re brave enough, you will soar. If you don’t give yourself over to him, if you try backpedaling him at times, that’s when it feels melodramatic or old-fashioned.

I’m too tired to keep going now. To be continued.

Teddy Hickman

The quote by O’Neill reminds me of a beautiful moment in “Long Day’s Journey” when Mary says: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done, they make you do other things until at last, everything comes between you and what you’d like to be and you’ve lost your true self forever.” To me it’s a nakedly honest admission of her addiction. It’s delivered to her two sons, who have had to live with her addiction for 23 years. It’s admitted without blaming the doctor who first prescribed the morphine and without blaming James and his profession, which kept her isolated and dependent for years and fed the addiction.

Of course, on the flip side, it’s the attitude of a victim — never taking personal responsibility. Just a tiny moment in a four-act masterpiece, but one that demonstrates the dichotomy of his characters. Then, factor in the fact that it’s autobiographical! Good Lord!

Have a swell day off!

Mama Tyrone,

Manipulator Extraordinaire

It is a privilege to work on these plays, and when you think of what it cost him to write them, physically and emotionally, you feel a certain moral obligation to pour your own heart and soul into them, and try to honor his achievement.

The biggest compliment we’ve gotten here is that people seem to understand the play in a way they haven’t before, which is a tribute to the extraordinary company of actors, and [the director] Bob Falls, and that even though I’m an alcoholic sex addict who murdered his wife in her sleep, they find his story heartbreaking.

I don’t think Hickey is a sociopath or a dark angel of death, although sometimes tough love is involved, and he starts to enjoy his power over these people. I think he is an incredibly tortured soul who couldn’t break his own pattern of self-destruction. If you’ve ever read any of O’Neill’s letters, you know how obsessive he was in his youth about losing himself in romantic relationships, how he couldn’t stand to be alone. This is something that also drives Hickey.

I could go on and on, and it seems I have. And please, don’t hold me to any of this. In a month I could change my mind. That’s the beauty of a play like this, the discoveries, the breakthroughs, the layers. It’s like getting in an elevator and going down to the basement, thinking that’s as far as you can go, and then one night you get in and see there are three more buttons leading to sublevels you hadn’t seen before. It’s been the high point of my theatrical career, and it has made me hungry for more.

T. Hickman,

Life of the Party

Going in, I completely underestimated the scope of this piece, and the rehearsal period was maddening, but my experience working on O’Neill has been as rewarding for me as I know yours has been. Keep your eyes open for something we can do together again. You know how much I love being in a rehearsal room with you!

Much love

and see you in N.Y. in the fall,

Mary “Mad Dog” Tyrone

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