By Stanford Friedman
Fear, despair and cowardice are the bar snacks of choice at Harry Hope’s, that seedy “no chance saloon” and flophouse that the tragic drunks of The Iceman Cometh call home. In this distinguished and exuberant Broadway revival of the 1939 Eugene O’Neill classic, the denizens of Harry’s inhabit a perpetual fugue state, circa 1912, where yesterday was the best of times and tomorrow is the reason to drink away tonight. Buy any of them a fifteen cent shot of whisky and they will impart their hard earned wisdom: Looking forward is so much easier than moving forward, never acting on your dreams means never being disappointed.
Act One introduces us to 12 mangy men. There is Harry Hope himself (Colm Meaney), who has not stepped out of his pub in a decade, immobilized by the death of his wife and placated by rotgut. And then there is young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), a would-be anarchist with mother issues. It’s his first night at the bar and his last chance at salvation. In between sit a spectrum of lost souls including Rocky (Danny McCarthy), the bartender who tries to convince himself that he’s not also a pimp, Willie (Neal Huff), a Harvard law student who transferred to the school of hard knocks, Jimmy (Reg Rogers), who has lost track of the difference between resigning and being fired, Joe (Michael Potts), a black man who once ran his own gambling house, and the mournful Larry Slade (David Morse). Another former believer in the anarchist movement, Larry defers his hopelessness just long enough to serve as our melancholy guide for the evening’s dour festivities.
Act Two offers a kind of Last Supper in reverse, with a savior who arrives to betray his many apostles. It’s Harry’s birthday which means the much anticipated annual visit by Hickey (Denzel Washington), a salesman who treats the men to all the gags and booze they can swallow. But this year it’s different. The now sober Hickey shows up with a new agenda: to save his friends by forcing them to realize their own hopelessness. This makes for not only a bummer of a birthday party, it propels the final two acts into a crash landing where Hickey gets the men to step into the sunlight, only to have them back and cowering by day’s end. At this point, even the liquor has lost its kick and the only thing that can appease the gang is the realization that Hickey, himself, is a broken man who has lost his way. Cheers, this is not.
Blessed with a sprawling cast of stage veterans, director George C. Wolfe constructs fantastic tableaus; the men and their ladies of ill repute filling the space with the weight of their losses, then breaking out into mournful soliloquies or two-man bouts of comic relief. Mr. Huff brings a drunkard’s spryness to Willie, nearly tumbling down a flight of stairs but then sticking the landing. Similarly, the great physical clown Bill Irwin shows up as Ed, a failed circus worker who is flimsy incarnate. Mr. Meaney’s Harry seems in good shape for a shut-in, but his bluster is meticulously crafted. The always fine character actor Frank Wood and the Falstaffian Dakin Matthews play two former military men now comically at odds with each other having once faced off in the Boer War. And Clark Middleton, as the once radical Hugo, is like a pressure release valve, blowing his top whenever interactions among his peers get too intense.
Mr. Washington plays Hickey with gusto, glad-handing his pals, then poking them, before ultimately revealing his own tragic mindset with a psychotic coolness. Being cast in this role solves a problem for the producers but creates a particular dilemma for the director. As his Playbill bio not so humbly points out, “Denzel Washington is the most lauded stage and screen actor of his generation.” As a result, ticket sales will do fine. But in presenting an African American Hickey, O’Neill’s commentary about race gets scrambled. His gambler character, Joe, spends no small amount of time suffering the consequences of the racial divide of the era, complete with name calling and the indignity of being thought of as “white,” when flush with cash. So by comparison, it is hard to reckon the long-standing respect and good will the men have for Hickey. And harder still to fathom Joe’s summation of Hickey’s brutal influence, “It’s white man’s bad luck. He can’t jinx me!” It’s an awkward problem that casts a shadow of confusion over this otherwise self-assured production.
The Iceman Cometh – By Eugene O’Neill; Directed by George C. Wolfe
WITH: Denzel Washington (Hickey), Colm Meaney (Harry Hope), David Morse (Larry Slade), Bill Irwin (Ed Mosher), Tammy Blanchard (Cora), Carolyn Braver (Pearl), Austin Butler (Don Parritt), Joe Forbrich (Lieb), Nina Grollman (Margie), Thomas Michael Hammond (Moran), Neal Huff (Willie Oban), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Chuck Morello), Dakin Matthews (Piet Wetjoen), Jack McGee (Pat McGloin), Clark Middleton (Hugo Kalmar), Michael Potts (Joe Mott), Reg Rogers (James Cameron), and Frank Wood (Cecil Lewis).
Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Narda E. Alcorn, Production Stage Manager. The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., 212-239-6200, http://icemanonbroadway.com. Through July 1. Running time: 3 hours and 50 minutes, with 2 intermissions.