TAMPA — As the lights came up at 7:01 p.m. Thursday, a crowd of 30 watched a dozen men sleeping off another drunken night in Harry Hope's saloon.
We would not leave until Friday.
The smallest professional theater in Tampa Bay is wrapping up its fifth season in a big, and long, way — with a play that runs four and a half hours.
Tampa Repertory Theatre opened its production of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill. Set in a New York flophouse in 1912, the drama has lured multiple revivals since its opening 70 years ago, and some big names.
Jason Robards has played Hickey, the newly abstinent salesman preaching temperance to his former drinking buddies. So have James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey and Nathan Lane.
It is an ambitious undertaking by any standard. For that reason, not many have seen it. I hadn't, but knew the show included four acts and lasted more than four hours. I admit feeling somewhat apprehensive as I arrived at the University of South Florida's Studio 120, where the itinerant Tampa Repertory performs some of its shows. What were we getting ourselves into?
Larry Slade, a gaunt barroom philosopher with a sallow complexion, set the scene early with an image harkening to the nearby riverfront. The bar, he said, was the "last harbor" for this group.
"No one has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."
Michael Mahoney gave a remarkably even and tempered performance as Larry, a committed alcoholic and nihilist. His counterweight, the energized Hickey, did not even appear until 8:17 p.m. In the meantime, the 14 other men and three women offered glimpses of pathos with varying degrees of success. Standouts included Ernie Rowland as the widowed bar owner Harry, a crusty type reminiscent of Robert Duvall; and Jack Holloway as Ed, a two-bit hustler and Harry's former brother-in-law. Josh Goff also commanded attention as Joe, who wants to open a gambling house.
A number of others strained the patience. Fortunately, Randy Rosenthal's shouted lines as the anarchist Hugo Kalmar were few and far between. Other performers failed to master diction, which can be brutal when combined with rapid speech. Director C. David Frankel, who is also Tampa Rep's artistic director, balanced a large cast as well as possible, with broad shoulders carrying the heaviest loads.
None are heavier than the role of Hickey, played with a sardonic edge by Ned Averill-Snell. He was also widowed, but unlike Harry declared himself free from alcohol.
I glanced at my watch. It was 8:35 p.m. Wait, we were still in the first act?
The first of three intermissions arrived at 8:36.
"Let's hope the next three acts aren't as long as the first," a stranger in the men's room said. I paced through the parking lot, gulping cheddar and peanut butter crackers, one whole cracker per bite.
8:54 p.m. Sixteen people returned to their seats for the start of Act II. Themes were firmly set. Is life worth it? Larry said no, Hickey said yes.
Did he really think that? It's hard to know what Hickey meant by his preaching. If the play anticipated Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as some have said, it also anticipated the recovery evangelist who is so happy, joyous and free that he cannot help but insist that you follow in his footsteps. The other barflies resisted him, but he wore them down. He would shatter their "pipe dreams," for their own good.
9:38 p.m. Hickey delivered a birthday toast to Harry. He was going to sip whiskey, he said, just to show he's not a pious teetotaler. But that looked like water in his glass.
The answer to that question, if there was one, didn't come to me. But I realized something important.
9:49 p.m. Act II ended. I checked on Game 6 of the NBA finals, which started at 9. The Cleveland Cavaliers were leading the Golden State Warriors, 46-33.
Back inside, the audience attrition appeared to be leveling off. Fourteen of the 16 people returned to their seats. All kinds of tragedies and dashed dreams were exposed, mostly by Hickey. The flophouse prostitutes provided a splash of color. Hickey and Larry squared off. One of them was Satan, and we weren't sure which.
11:01 p.m. Act III ended. The show resumed at 11:16. It was starting to become clear that there was more to Hickey than he showed, and it was more in line with what Larry had been saying all along.
11:43 p.m. "But that's ahead of myself," Hickey said, already many minutes into his longest monologue of the night.
12:19 a.m. Friday. House lights went down. The audience clapped. All 14 from Act III were still there. The parking lot was much quieter, the buzzing sound coming from street lamps more audible, along with a few birds somewhere. The Cavs had defeated the Warriors, Siri said.
I was a bit disoriented but content. This play shows huge guts on the part of Tampa Repertory. They took on a show this long, with actors working long hours for little or no pay.
Was it flawless? Hardly. But The Iceman Cometh is solid enough in the key places. Going there felt like climbing a mountain, then crossing a desert, climbing another mountain, then walking along a beach which eventually leads to a highway. That's not a bad feeling. It feels kind of good.
The thing is, Tampa Rep got more than their money's worth out of this cast. At $20, you will too.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.