I was not prepared for this production, or maybe I was in some alternative low-expectation kind of way. I have never seen nor read this classic Eugene O’Neill play surprisingly, just heard talk of it from time to time. Usually the talk centers around the length and lethargic manner this room full of alcoholics and day-dreamers go about their business, or lack there of. It always sounds so tedious, and a long four hours. First premiering on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 9, 1946, the aura surrounding it, especially that last revival at BAM, starring Nathan Lane, never sent me running to the box office, but in the opposite direction. So on a gorgeously sunny and warm New York City spring day, I reluctantly entered the Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, holding my breath that the movie star, stage actor, and Tony Award winning Denzel Washington (Broadway’s Fences), an actor that I’ve never really gotten behind, was going to find some life in The Iceman Cometh. Surrounded by his fan base, and as directed by the formidable George C. Wolfe (Broadway’s Shuffle Along…), I was greeted, when the curtain went up, with a silhouette of comatose lost souls, passed out on table tops in a montage that did nothing to alleviate my dread.
But I was mislead. Because what happens over the next four hours (two intermissions and one short break) is a solidly contracted dance towards death, filled with engaging and deep performances from a cast of pros relishing and finding humor in every morsel and whiskey shot. There is barely a weak link in the lot, as these foolish old cannibals at the end of the line, rambling on about their often mentioned pipe dreams, never feels dull or disingenuous for a moment. I considered taking a swig of alcohol every time I heard the phrase ‘pipe dream’ uttered, but to be honest, I’d be as drunk as this lot by the first intermission. Don’t try it, I beseech you, as you’ll miss out on something much bigger and more powerful than anything I could have expected.
Starting with the phenomenal David Morse (How I Learned to Drive) as the core drunkard waiting for death to come with no answer to give to anyone. It’s hard to describe how someone floating in the last harbor of life can give a play its emotional center, but Morse manages to make his Larry Slade captivating while also being locked in a deathly loophole of whiskey. When a young man by the name of Don Parritt (Austin Butler), the teenage son of an anarchist from Slade’s past, desperate for redemption or condemnation of some sort, arrives at Harry Hope’s bar, he finds his father-figure slouched over a chair without much movement left in his bones. The dynamic between them is surreal, with Slade offering not an ounce of warmth or comfort for the lost young man, only a disengagement that is so layered, one can’t help but be intrigued. Bulter (Geffen Playhouse’s Death of the Author) struggles with a deep well of shame and guilt that he can’t shake, sadly struggles in the same way to find some emotional depth and clarity in the part. In Butler’s Parritt, we find the least authentic soul in this bar, but don’t waste your pity on the young man, to be in this cast of characters is an honor unto itself.
The rest of this jittery crew is made up of acting powerhouses, such as Colm Meaney (Young Vic’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as Harry Hope, the widowed proprietor of the saloon and rooming house where the play takes place. Harry hasn’t left the bar since his wife died years ago, and he is joined at the table of boozy stagnation by his brother-in-law (brother of Hope’s late wife Bess), a con-man and former circus man played by the astounding and perfectly cast Bill Irwin (Old Hats, Broadway’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff); and his other family member, Pat McGloin, the former police lieutenant who was convicted on criminal charges and kicked off the force portrayed effortlessly by the talented Jack McGee (“This Is Us”). Waking up as if electrocuted, the hypnotizing Neal Huff (Broadway’s Take Me Out) as the Harvard Law School alumnus, Willie Oban, shakes and rattles around the stage desperate for a drink and a direction. He is greeted and engaged by Joe Mott, the former proprietor of a gambling house and the token black man in the bar, played hilariously wise by Michael Potts (Broadway’s Jitney). Hiding in the corner is a band of misfit military men, General Piet Wetjoen, the former leader of a Boer commando, played solidly by Dakin Matthews (Broadway’s Waitress); his rival and best friend, Captain Cecil Lewis, the former Captain of British infantry, played regally by the wonderfully delicious Frank Wood (LCT’s The Babylon Line); and the former Boer War correspondent, the perfectly named Jimmy Tomorrow, played miraculously by Reg Rogers (Public’s Privacy), nicknamed thus as he constantly daydreams about getting his old job back again tomorrow, if only he would iron his suit. He is not the only one who shares this dream, and last but not least in this band of drunken princes in the palace of pipe dreams, is the wonderful Clark Middleton (The Golem) as the former editor of an anarchist periodical, Hugo Kalmar, who comes in and out like a liquored-up cuckoo clock spouting lines from the Old Testament and theoretic political guidebooks almost on the hour, or so it seems. They all resonate and vibrate at such a high level of detached lockjaw that their drunkenness is somehow energizing and we can not look away.
This cast of characters, all superbly delineated and orchestrated around Harry’s downtown saloon; designed impeccably by Santo Loquasto (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!), with ingeniously drab lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Broadway’s Once On This Island), dingy and perfect costumes by Ann Roth (Broadway’s Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women), with a solid sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Broadway’s American Psycho), are served up shots of moonshine by the night bartender, Rocky Pioggi, played wisely and crassly by Danny McCarthy (Broadway’s Grace). Paid very little by Harry, he makes most of his money in the guise of a ‘pimp‘, a term he hates, managing the two street-walkers, Pearl (Carolyn Braver) and Margie (Nina Grollman). Braver (MTC/Steppenwolf’s Airline Highway) and Grollman (Public’s The Winter’s Tale) serve up these two prostitutes impeccably, filling the space with a rough sense of dark humor in every giggly moment, preferring the professional title of “tart” over the despised “whore“. They gleefully live in a land of make-believe, not so much dreaming of a tomorrow that will never come, but ignoring the reality of the here and now. Just like the day bartender Chuck Morello, played sharply by Danny Mastrogiorgio (Broadway’s The Front Page) and his forever fiancé and street-walker, Cora, portrayed with perfection by the magnificent Tammy Blanchard (Tony nominated for Broadway’s Gypsy with Bernadette Peters), they gingerly step around the obvious, pretend living in a future farmhouse in New Jersey, one that will never blossom or grow one stalk of anything real.
The group all talk the talk of tomorrow, enjoying the fantasy of the pipe dream, without ever making that step forward. They sit drinking down another drink, each one making the procrastination of the doing stronger. Tonight on the eve of Harry’s birthday, they are waiting for the life of the party, a traveling salesman by the name of Hickey, to arrive, much like the two hobos waiting for the mystical Godot. The reminisce about his funny sad stories of his wife’s infidelity with the Iceman, laughing and drinking now that they have something to look forward to. And as the piano tinkers in the background (a wonderful Larry Yurman), in he walks, the movie star and Tony winning actor, Denzel Washington. The actor and the character are greeting with adoration and excitement by all on stage and off. “Bring on the rat poison“, as the crowd is ready for another night of drinking and ignoring the world, but this is not the Hickey they have been eagerly waiting for. He is a changed man, and as brilliantly as the set changes from one act to the next, the mood in the room alters. Hickey’s Revolution has begun, putting everyone on edge as Washington’s miraculous salesman starts “freeing” their souls with the truth. The bar starts to look brighter, more festive and grand, but the cast of characters seem to be darker, as if they are all walking to a funeral. Selling them on their own fantasies, but with an added sense of urgency and purpose, Hickey shows us all that he is a salesman down to his hidden shaken core. There is a secret though, we all know; a reason that Hickey has woken to a new world of sobriety and action, one that needs to be revealed, and Morse’s Slade will not be pushed forward into this new day without finding out where this momentous change has come from. With the keys being collected by Rocky, and the tables emptied, the real stuff that crucifies gets laid bare, and although Parritt’s sad side story gets lost a bit in Washington’s dramatic confession, The Iceman does eventually cometh. It’s a big commitment, this Iceman, but worth every hour. I’m not sure his fan base was prepared for the depth that this Cometh brought forth, as many started to filter out as soon as Washington made his exit, and before the delicious ending of a pretty near perfect revival of this O’Neill classic. It’s a shame, as they missed out on the whole package, filling themselves up only on the dream.
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