When Eugene O'Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, he drew on several seedy watering holes from his down-and-out youth as inspiration for the play's setting, Harry Hope's Saloon. One bar was a waterfront hangout on Fulton Street called Jimmy the Priest's, another was called the Golden Swan in Greenwich Village (dubbed the Hell Hole by its clientele), and the third was a slightly classier joint in the Garden Hotel on 27th Street near the old Madison Square Garden. Those spots are obviously long gone, so while designing the Almeida Theatre Company production of The Iceman Cometh, Bob Crowley had to look elsewhere for inspiration. New York being what it is, the designer had no trouble finding alternatives.
"I had several old New York bars in mind when I first thought about this production," says Crowley about his Tony-nominated set. "One was the Old Town on 18th Street [just down the street from the offices of ED]. The color of the set is very much based on that bar. And PJ Clarke's was another one, on Third Avenue and 54th Street, a long red brick bar with a restaurant in back. They all have sawdust on the floors and spittoons and peeling ceilings. But ours is a sculptural shape rather than an absolutely realistic shape, because it's quite a surreal play, so the set isn't exactly a reproduction of any of those bars."
This production of Iceman--presented at the Almeida Theatre in North London last year and transferred to the Old Vic in the West End before coming to the Brooks Atkinson on Broadway this spring--isn't exactly a reproduction of any other previous version of the play, either. Directed by Howard Davies and featuring sets and costumes by Crowley, lighting by Mark Henderson, and sound by John A. Leonard, this is an Iceman with a true ensemble cast (though it stars Kevin Spacey as the enigmatic Hickey, he doesn't receive top billing and shares dressing room space with the other actors), a surprising number of laughs, and a design that mixes boozy revelry with cold sobriety.
O'Neill shifts the action between the bar in the front and a restaurant area in the back, but for this production Crowley created one set that combined both rooms. "O'Neill's stage directions are very precise," he says. "You shift from one section of the bar to the other. We tried to work all of that out, but because there were no wings in the Almeida, it was impossible to do what he asks. So we came up with this basic composite set that encompasses the whole thing, and just reworked the entrances and exits."
Crowley's goal in creating the space--wooden floors, brick walls, a raked stage, a large, decrepit mirror behind the bar, windows all around, and a large curved Plexiglas window near the front entrance, all set in a very curved, half-moon shape--was to create a saloon that was seedy yet inviting. "I know it's meant to be the most godforsaken hole on the Lower West Side, but I also wanted it to be somewhere that you would feel good going into," he notes. "It's not so horrible that the characters wouldn't want to be there. And the minute you put brick onstage, it's warm; brick and wood immediately spell warmth. I genuinely wanted it to feel like they were being embraced by their environment."
The second floor of Harry Hope's is a kind of flophouse where the bar's denizens stumble to in order to sleep off their binges. Though never seen in the play, Crowley felt it was important to create a sense of that upstairs space. "I hadn't seen it in any production before, so I began to hang things off the brick wall [above the action]--bed frames, suitcases, chairs--to suggest their sleeping life."
The use of brick came to Crowley when first looking at the Almeida space. "Howard and I have worked together a lot, and our approach usually begins with us getting a reaction to the space and the work that's going to be performed there," he explains. "And because it was the Almeida, we felt it was important to somehow include the theatre rather than exclude it. There was something about the back wall there, this beautiful curved wall, which began the whole curved nature of the bar. So I started with that back wall, and gradually worked it out from there to create a slightly womb-like space."
Crowley also utilized several windows at the back wall of the Almeida and added several more windows around the perimeter in addition to the huge curved Plexiglas one near the entrance of the bar. "The idea was to suggest the outside world, and to suggest the world they all refused to go into," Crowley says of the windows. "And also, because we were using one setting, we wanted to change the lighting quite dramatically, to get that horrible feeling of waking up with your brain on the tabletop and that cold light of morning streaming in."
It was up to Henderson, who was also Tony-nominated for his work, to provide that cold light of morning, not to mention the other looks and moods experienced during the 24-hour span of the play. "I wanted to make the lighting appear very real, so the practical light sources within the room seemed to be the real light sources," he says of his overall design scheme. "It was important to have a controlled environment where we could shift the emphasis as required. The stage area is quite broad; we wanted to keep the whole picture alive all the time but be able to shift the eye, preferably imperceptibly, to where we needed emphasis.
"It is important that during the latter part of Act I and throughout Act III that we have a strong sense of daylight piercing into the room," he continues. "Act I is great, because we have a slow realization of dawn coming in f rom the outside, with daylight eventually taking over from the internal light sources. Act II has a more festive feel, with the room lit completely internally, and the blue night sky windows providing a contrast. Act III is a huge shift, with warm sunlight penetrating the space, allowing a very sharp dynamic to be introduced. And Act IV is a return to the more somber tones of the early parts of Act I, echoing the mood of the play."
Henderson used a lot of open white on the production, which gave what New York Times critic Ben Brantley called a "scotch color" to the proceedings. By using that, he says, "It was then possible to have a slightly murky, shadowy feel, and use a higher-intensity white to pull focus and add clarity where needed. The acting area was all pretty much open white except for the daylight scenes, when some Lee 205 was punching through from the PARs. We did use some colors in the windows--Lee 200/201 for the night sky and Lee 205/205 for the sunlight."
At the Almeida, Henderson toyed with the idea of setting up towers outside the back wall of the theatre and using film lighting sources to punch through the real windows in the back wall. The cost and the approach of spring made such a move impractical, however. "We eventually opted for building window light boxes (with internal neon sources) within the real window frames to enable us to recreate daylight and nighttime sky outside," says the designer.
Henderson used the in-house equipment at the Almeida, a Strand Gemini 2 controller with a variety of PAR-64s, CCT Silhouette 30 1,000W zoom profiles, and a mix of Strand fresnels and profiles. He had a slightly larger plot at the Old Vic to allow for different positions and a longer throw, with ETC Source Fours added to the mix of Strand profiles and fresnels, all run on an ETC Obsession board. At the Brooks Atkinson, Henderson kicked it up another notch because Crowley added more windows that needed backlighting; he used PAR-64s, Altman fresnels, ETC Source Fours, and ETC Source Four zooms run on an ETC Obsession 2 console.
Due to prior obligations, Henderson was unable to come to New York in mid-February during tech, so the designer had his associate Bobby Harrell do the focusing from his scribbled diagrams. "I pay great credit to Bobby because he did a wonderful job and was a great support during the production period," Henderson says.
Crowley was in town for tech, working on the transfer of both Iceman and Amy's View at the same time (Henderson worked on both productions as well); the Brooks Atkinson is just across the street from the Barrymore, where David Hare's play is housed. "It was helpful having two shows opposite another," he says. "They opened back to back, so it saved on my shoe leather."
Much of Crowley's focus on the move to Broadway was on the costumes. He and his assistant, Lynette Mauro, had to refit 19 members of the American cast. "American actors are usually bigger than British actors," he notes, "so we brought a lot of the old stuff over and then did the whole thing over again here. I tried to retain as much as I could, but when I saw different shapes and different people, I got different ideas.
"It was all put together from a collection of secondhand clothes from a rental house in London called Cosprop," adds Crowley. "We just went through the rails of stuff they don't normally put on actors, the stuff that's too bad, and built up the characters one by one."
The only costume built from scratch, he notes, was the suit worn by Kevin Spacey. The remainder of the costumes are a mix of old and new clothes, but mostly old. "Some of them are even originals," Crowley says. "The old coat worn by the English captain comes from 1880. It's stronger than most of the newer stuff."
Even though many of the costumes chosen were in questionable shape, Crowley called on two "distress specialists"--Vicki Hallam in the UK and Patrick Wiley in the US--to provide what he refers to as subtle, filmic-detailed distressing of many of the clothes. "It's really hard to do that stuff without making it look wrong," he says. "It's very easy to confuse poverty with dirt. Just because someone is poor doesn't mean they're dirty, so you have to try and find a way of making it look like they live in these things. But they also have to survive the dry-cleaning process, which can sometimes just restore what you've been distressing."
Equally distressed, Crowley notes, was the the Brooks Atkinson itself; he felt the theatre was the perfect venue for Iceman's return to the New York stage. "It had the requisite seediness," he notes. "It has these horrible old lights hanging up with these tatty old red and pink lampshades. I said, 'For God's sake, whatever you do, please don't put new lampshades on. Normally you complain about the front of house, but in this case it was good for the play."
Technical supervision for the Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh was provided by Unitech II Corp. Additional scenery was built by Hudson Scenic Studios. Lighting equipment was provided by Four Star Stage Lighting; sound equipment by Masque Sound. Lighting truss and focus track by Feller Precision. Women's costumes were executed by Barbara Matera, Ltd. Assistant set designer was Mike Britton.