Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy | Interview
The actors talk about the Goodman’s revival of The Iceman Cometh.
Brian Dennehy has been here before. Nathan Lane has not.
I’m speaking of The Iceman Cometh, the Eugene O’Neill epic the two are pairing up for at the Goodman Theatre this month. Dennehy, 73, took on Iceman in a 1990 production helmed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, the first of an ongoing series of O’Neill collaborations between the two. Lane, 56, is tackling O’Neill for the first time.
I’m also speaking of Old Town Bar, the 120-year-old joint near Manhattan’s Union Square where the two actors meet me on a February afternoon to talk about how the Goodman production came to be. Though Lane lives close by, he’s unfamiliar with the place. But Dennehy, who’s driven down to New York from his home in Connecticut, recognizes the bar’s shabby decor as soon as we walk in.
“Yeah, I know this place,” the barrel-chested actor says, adding that he used to frequent the Old Town with his Columbia University football teammate Bill Campbell, who went on to become chairman of Intuit. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this place in daylight,” Dennehy says. “Or before midnight, for that matter. We always used to come here to finish off. It’s a great old bar—”
Lane cuts him off as we settle in to a corner table. “You’re like an FM DJ,” Lane teases. “You just go on and on and on: ‘Hello, Minnesota!’ You’ve got the suspenders for it. ‘Welcome, Minnesota!’ ”
The pairing of these two actors—burly, rumpled Dennehy, winner of two Tony Awards for serious dramas Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night, and buttoned-down, droopy-eyed Lane, whose two Tonys came for musical comedies The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—for O’Neill’s bleak portrait of the denizens of a New York City saloon much like the Old Town may have struck some as eyebrow-raising.
But as their banter suggests, Lane and Dennehy are longtime pals. “Are you not wearing suspenders? Let me see,” Dennehy retorts. “You’ve got a better body than I got. I gotta wear suspenders. All belly and no ass.”
“Really? Really?!” Lane replies with an exaggerated shiver. “Don’t know how I’ll get that image out of my head.”
As our first round of drinks arrives—merlot for Dennehy, Guinness for me, Rolling Rock for Lane after our waitress shoots down his first few beer orders—the two actors explain how they met in 1980, when both were living in Los Angeles. Lane, struggling to make it in New York, had headed West with a comedy partner, Patrick Stack.
Stack was friendly with actor Michael Talbott, who lived with Dennehy in a West Hollywood apartment. “You can insert your own joke here,” Lane says drily, to a roar of laughter from Dennehy.
Dennehy was doing movies and television at the time. “But I always did theater—usually back East or in Chicago,” he says. After less than two years in L.A., Lane ended up back in New York. The two kept up with each other—“I’d go see him in theater, he’d come see me,” Dennehy says—but never worked together.
“And now we get to do this,” Dennehy says. “This is like the biggest jigsaw puzzle that you can possibly go to work on. The acrostic of all acrostics, this play.”
“That’s a good analogy,” Lane muses. “A jigsaw puzzle. A big, Irish-Catholic, nihilistic jigsaw puzzle.”