The Iceman Cometh
Denzel Washington as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway. Photos: Julieta Cervantes.

[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, April 27, 2018.]

On the page, Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth and imperfect four-act play The Iceman Comethcomes at you through a series of monologues, some raucous camaraderie, and spates of fisticuffs. Set over a two-day period in Harry Hope’s bar in lower Manhattan in 1912, lives are bemoaned, redeemed, relieved and perhaps resolved. These barflies create their own quirky family, sequestered from sunlight and the rest of the world. The stage is further populated by one returning good-time drunk who claims that he’s recovered, three tarts who bristle when called whores even as they ply their trade in rooms upstairs, and two cops who arrive at the end to resolve some loose plot threads. It’s an ensemble that can be balanced delicately, as in the Robert Falls-directed revival at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which privileged a coalescence of performances over individual showboats. Director George C. Wolfe’s new revival on Broadway starring Oscar- and Tony-winner Denzel Washington eschews any such balance, crushing the magical simplicity of O’Neill long tale.

Saloon proprietor Harry Hope (flushed and blustery Colm Meaney), and his bartender and small-time pimp, Rocky (prickly but paternal Danny McCarthy), keep the men and women of the bar vaguely corralled, and for the most part they stand aside as their various stories are delivered to the audience. Larry (wounded and observant David Morse) espouses anarchist ideas, and Willy (jumpy and heartbreaking Neal Huff) constantly references his Harvard law background and seemingly hopeless joblessness. The rest of the boys are either sleeping off the booze or awaking to joke, to fight, to tell familiar or all-new tales.

Observing the goings-on, leaning on the edge of the stage, judging things from a distance, and often pulling focus from other characters, Morse’s Larry evokes the dramatic stance of Tom in The Glass Menagerie. When a new, young visitor, Parritt (Austin Butler), asks Larry to remember him, to engage with him, to help him through a gradually revealed problem, he’s rebuffed. Parritt is a leftover from Larry’s past life, one that Larry has little interest in revisiting. Ed Mosher (sweet and silly Bill Irwin), once a short-changing carnie who “always gave a sucker some chance,” delivers an elegant monologue outlining the benefits of being distracted while counting change. (Tammy Blanchard) enters with the boyfriend she wants to marry, and captures our hearts.

Life doesn’t change much during these four hours in a well-lubricated bar full of longtime deep drinkers, but O’Neill provide twists and possibilities in his highest tragicomic vein. The politics of communism and socialism, for example, loom on the edges. Who has a chance for a future? Who fights for what they need? Who fights for what they’re owed? Everyone on stage, there in that dingy bar, considers the chances they’ve lost over time.

In total, we meet 16 characters before Hickey (Washington) enters. He’s discussed as a man of great presence that many recall with affection, perhaps because he escaped the draw of the drink. Hickey, we’re told, would often tell a joke-story about the iceman, a version of traveling salesman stories who have affairs with housewives.

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