Yes, Denzel Washington is the reason audiences are drawn to the fifth Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, just as the hopeless drunks who inhabit Harry Hope’s saloon are drawn to Hickey, the character Washington is portraying. Hickey is a happy-go-lucky traveling salesman who arrives every year on Harry’s birthday to buy them all drinks and lift their spirits.
Hickey disappoints the barflies this year; he’s stopped drinking, and is on a mission to turn them all sober and make them face their delusions.
But, in this production directed by George C. Wolfe…the barflies themselves do not disappoint. A strong ensemble cast of 19, mostly veteran actors with familiar faces (some with familiar names), persuasively play a dive full of colorful characters, desperately holding onto what the playwright calls their pipe dreams. It’s a phrase O’Neill has the characters repeat nearly 50 times over the course of the play.
Click on any photograph by Julieta Cervantes to see it enlarged
“They manage to get drunk, by hook or crook, and keep their pipe dreams, and that’s all they ask of life,” says Larry Slade, memorably portrayed by David Morse, before introducing each of the people in the bar to a newcomer, a rundown that another character wryly calls the “Who’s Who in Dypsomania.”
Some theatergoers unacquainted with this play might be put off by its length and repetition; the artifice of its set-up; and some of its characters’ slang and attitudes, both of which make it a period piece. O’Neill sets the play over two days in 1912. He wrote it in 1939 but did not get it produced until 1946 – one of the last to debut before his death. Other theatergoers well-acquainted with the play, and enamored of it, may object to the director’s decision to cut an hour out of the script, because it now further emphasizes the characters’ monologues, which are kept intact at the expense of some of the interaction with Hickey.
I understand these objections, but they didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this production. Most audience members, I suspect, won’t mind the shorter running time, which is now slightly under four hours (including two intermissions and a “pause.”) The design and staging (especially the lighting) place the play firmly in the realm of the lyrical, but the acting makes it feel grounded in psychological reality. The trimming manages to direct more attention to the individual denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon, each with a story to tell, each story giving another talented performer a chance to shine.
Colm Meaney is bar owner Harry, blustery but non-judgmental to the point of being kind. Once a Tammany politician, he hasn’t ventured outside the bar in the 20 years since his wife died.
Michael Potts plays Joe Mott, the only black barfly, who used to run his own gambling emporium, and dreams of opening up a new one: “I’ll treat you white… If you wins, dat’s velvet for you. If you loses, it don’t count. Can’t treat you no whiter dan dat, can I?” He now sweeps up at Harry’s, making a show of fighting the casual racism of the others, but always eventually backing down and having a drink.
If some of the characters get what feels like cameos, we learn enough to make them distinctive. Reg Rogers is Jimmy Tomorrow, a former journalist who is always convincing himself he’ll get it back together starting tomorrow. Tammy Blanchard is Cora, a prostitute who aims to get married and go straight. Danny McCarthy is Rocky, the bartender, who insists he’s not a pimp, although he “manages” two prostitutes, Margie (Nina Grollman) and Pearl (Carolyn Braver.) Neal Huff is Willie Oban, a graduate of Harvard Law School, but the son of a crooked, domineering businessman. “I discovered the loophole of whiskey and escaped his jurisdiction.”
Some of the characters in The Iceman Cometh are in effect grouped together in what amounts to subplots. The most developed and compelling of these involve Morse as Larry Slade, a former anarchist who gave it up, perhaps disillusioned, certainly drunk. An 18-year-old named Don Parritt ( Austin Butler, making an impressive Broadway debut) has tracked Larry down. Larry knew his mother, a fellow anarchist, who is now in prison. Don remembers Larry fondly, for having been the only member of the Movement – the only person, period — who paid attention to him as a kid. Larry, as we eventually discover, is burdened with a secret.
So is Hickey. When he finally shows up (an hour into the play), entering down the aisle of the auditorium, the characters are excited (and so is the audience.) But it doesn’t last for the characters. For all his familiar glad-handing, Hickey has changed, claiming to have given up drinking and wanting his friends to do the same. They find him off-putting, and sense that something is off about him. As Don Parritt observes: “There’s something that isn’t human behind his damned grinning and kidding.”
When at the end of The Iceman Cometh, he reveals his secret, it’s a long monologue delivered directly to the audience, sitting on a chair at the edge of the stage, with the entire cast behind him.
Hickey has been portrayed by actors as various as James Earl Jones, Jason Robards, Kevin Spacey, and Nathan Lane, who starred in a Goodman Theater production that came to BAM three years ago. Among those I’ve seen, Washington didn’t strike me as the most effective in nailing Hickey’s fake bonhomie, for all his movie charisma. This may be more my fault than his; how could the star of Fences and The Great Debaters and Glory and Malcolm X and Philadelphia be anything but a man of sincerity and honest conviction? But that final monologue fit more cleanly with his talents (or my expectations), and it was chilling.
The Iceman Cometh is on stage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater (242 W 45th St, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through July 1, 2018.
Tickets and details
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill . Directed by George C. Wolfe . Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Hair and Wig Design by Mia M. Neal; Makeup Design by Kathleen Brown
Featuring Denzel Washington, Colm Meaney, David Morse, Bill Irwin, Tammy Blanchard, Carolyn Braver, Austin Butler, Joe Forbrich, Nina Grollman, Thomas Michael Hammond, Neal Huff, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Dakin Matthews, Danny McCarthy, Jack McGee, Clark Middleton, Michael Potts, Reg Rogers, and Frank Wood. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.