New York City Theater
"The Iceman Cometh"
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
The lights creep up to reveal 12 men in varying stages of dishevelment and disintegration. This is daVinci’s Last Supper transmogrified into Harry Hope’s hopeless bar and flophouse on New York’s West Side. “Seedy” would be a compliment. In director George C. Wolfe’s imperfect production of “The Iceman Cometh,” Eugene O’Neill’s masterful tragedy of disappointment, the men look to a Messiah’s salvation as Jesus’ disciples did.
Though the men are waiting for Hickey, the audience is waiting for the actor portraying that character, Denzel Washington. When he finally appears, an hour or so into the evening, he’s a vivacious hail-fellow, with as much moxie as Arthur Miller’s famous salesman, Willy Loman. Glad-handing, grinning, buying booze and snacks, he’s their long-awaited deliverer, however temporary.
But salvation doesn’t come, at least not as expected. Hickey is not his usual cheerful self, telling jokes and stories of the outside world, but a dark angel. He’s Lucifer, leading them to hell, not heaven, forcing them to chuck their delusional pipe dreams and live the lives they think they desire.
He wants his buddies to give up boozing and napping and staying trapped indoors. Rather, he urges them, challenges them, to step outside and become part of a world without illusions. It’s time for them to put their pipe dreams into action. Ironically, it’s Hickey’s very shattering of illusions about himself that eventually reinforces their ennui.
Both Wolfe and Washington chose to present Hickey without underlying regret, fear and madness. By the time we get to the final, long and bracing monologue, we should be caught up not only in Hickey’s fate but his effect on his cohorts. By having him say the monolog sitting on a chair facing the audience, his back is to the bar’s denizens – his onetime, now disillusioned disciples -- we’re pulled out of the play.
Without a viable final confession (Jason Robards gave an historic performance), the four-hour play sinks under its own weight. Instead of being a linchpin, Washington’s Hickey lacks focus, baring his soul not for the defeated but for the audience.
The production is a bunch of scenes, instead of an integrated whole. Little truly coalesces. These denizens are independent of each other, acting out their little mise-en-scenes. Among the dreamers is the sardonic Larry Slade, a failed anarchist, longing for death, living “in the grandstand of philosophical detachment.” He’s the only one not taken in by Hickey.
But others are, for a while: two Boer war veterans, one British, one South African; a failed lawyer; a busted war correspondent named Jimmy Tomorrow; a graft-taking policeman; a larcenous circus worker; a wise bartender with his stable of whores; a hard-boiled gambling house owner named Joe Mott (“the whitest colored man I ever knew,” says the British vet); and, presiding over all, irascible and softhearted Harry Hope himself.
The character whose arc is followed most, besides Hickey, is the guilt-ridden Don Parritt, played with yearning sensitivity by Austin Butler, making an important Broadway debut. The cast is filled with skillful actors like Bill Irwin, Colm Meaney, Michael Potts, David Morse and Tammy Blanchard. Santo Loquasto’s sets are appropriately ramshackle, lit ominously by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, with the cast costumed in sad attempts at finery by Ann Roth.
All the pieces are in place. That they don’t quite fit together is unfortunate. But O’Neill lives on.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 10, 2018