"The intention was to do a production in London at the Almeida, in this tiny little 250-seater, for six weeks only," says Davies. "And he came to do that. And that's what he wanted to do. There was no plan to put it into the West End, of bringing it over to Broadway, at all."
But success wouldn't let this production die. After staggering reviews, the producers moved the play to London's Old Vic, where it won a fistful of awards and played to sold-out houses.
Now it's virtually sold out for its 16-week run in New York. Top tickets are selling for $100 a seat, but that isn't deterring anxious audiences. There is something about this production that has defied the instincts of the skittish producers who wouldn't touch it.
"This play that has everything going against it, you know rarely produced," Davies continues. "Too long. Too funky. All those things. Why this play is working in 1999 is because I think that we see ourselves in it. Whether it's ourselves individually, or ourselves as a society, we're there. We're up on that stage."
The play is an alcohol-infused meditation on broken dreams and disappointment: pipe dreams, as O'Neill calls them. Set in a musty New York bar in 1912, its action centers on the arrival of a traveling salesman named Hickey, played by Kevin Spacey.
"He, every year, comes to this bar, Harry Hope's bar, to celebrate Harry's birthday. And blows all his money, and gets everybody drunk, and everybody has a great time," says Spacey. "And Hickey is, in many ways, for these characters, he's the great guy. He's the savior. Every year Hickey comes and it's a blow-out. And this particular year Hickey comes and he's given up drinking. And there's reasons he's given up drinking. And he wants to take everyone else along with him."
When The Iceman Cometh debuted on Broadway in 1946, the reviews were mixed. Memories of Prohibition were still fresh and the alcohol-soaked derelicts of Harry's Bar too raw. It was the play's second production in 1956, starring Jason Robards, that established it as one of the great American classics. It is considered by many to be O'Neill's greatest work.
O'Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh in the middle of the century about a world he remembered all too well. As a young itinerant drunk, O'Neill frequented a bar on New York's Fulton Street. The bar is gone now, replaced by twin towers of the modern age. But at the end of the century, the real-life characters O'Neill knew and loved so long ago still speak to us as if they were alive today.
"I think one of the things that always knocks m out about this play is the level of generosity about how he wrote about them," Spacey continues. "Because he writes, as very few authors are able to, without judgment. He just presents this gang of messed-up, crazy, flawed individuals. And you fall in love with them."
Hustle may be part of Spacey's career, but craftsmanship is a bigger part. There was the Tony Award in 1991 for his performance in Lost in Yonkers. And then there are the film roles, often sly, mysterious characters like the underworld criminal in The Usual Suspects, for which he won an Academy Award in 1996. More actor than marquee-obsessed celebrity, in The Iceman Cometh, Spacey is just one of the cast, and you won't see his name in lights.
"For me, one of the great joys of doing it is that this company is so easy to love," says Spacey. "And it's so easy to tap into what Hickey has to feel for this group. So there are times when we get to the end of the evening and it is, it's devastating. It's emotionallyÂ…It's confusing and, and yet it's also quite beautiful. And it's quite daring. And it's quite hopeful."