When Denzel Washington, who plays the salesman Hickey in the shatteringly good Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” unleashes his dazzling smile, it’s fair to conclude that he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos without exerting himself too much. Washington, who has earned a reputation as one of Broadway’s finest leading men, matching his eminence in film, radiates a ferocious energy from the moment he bounds onstage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Enough to raise the dead, you might almost say.
And that’s more or less what Hickey has come to do. For the grimy saloon in which the play takes place metaphorically represents the only human habitation from which there’s no escape: the graveyard. As the curtain rises, almost all the bar’s denizens are slumped in various contorted shapes, looking like a tableau of war. (The lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer has a painterly nuance.) It’s only when they stir into groggy life that we realize there is still blood flowing in their veins. Or at least the remnants of last night’s liquor.
A great production of Eugene O’Neill’s monumental drama requires a towering performance in the crucial role of Hickey, and Washington memorably delivers one. But O’Neill’s searing, sorrowful depiction of men and women who float through the dregs of life afloat on a poisonous cocktail of booze and self-delusion requires more than a single superb performance: It really requires almost a dozen or more.
Happily, the cast assembled by the veteran director George C. Wolfe is almost without a weak link. It is made up of a collection of actors working at the top of their form to bring combustible life to a stage full of embalmed souls. Hickey, in fact, does not appear until late in the first act, by which time we have come to know all the dead dreams that dog the men and women who make an informal home at the saloon run by the sardonically named Harry Hope.
Colm Meaney is terrific as Harry, who vacillates between belligerent contempt for his ragtag band of hangers-on and an innate sentimentality that leads him to indulge them. They all know his soft spot: Just mention his sainted wife Bessie in a kindly light, and the spigot will turn on, although both they and he know she was a termagant.
One by one — and with more than a touch of the obvious, not to mention the repetitive, O’Neill’s undeniable flaws — the characters reveal the illusions they cling to in order to make it until the next world-obliterating drinking session. Willie Oban, played by Neal Huff with an almost tactile sense of oily desperation, is a lawyer who never practiced, but is convinced that if he pulls himself together he’ll be back on top. Heck, maybe his ticket to salvation is in the saloon: He’ll take the case of Pat McGloin (Jack McGee), a former corrupt cop who was kicked off the force and still stews with resentment and dreams of redemption.
When he emerges from his stupors, Joe Mott, the only designated black character in the play, brags about his days as a bigshot operator of a black gambling den, and the glory days to come when he will be back on top. Michael Potts imbues the character with a bleary pathos and a stinging sense of the character’s almost savage defense of his dignity. For when their hangovers bite, some of his pals spit forth brutal racist jibes.
Another running sideshow concerns the camaraderie between two war veterans, the Captain, an Englishman infused with a jittery assumed dignity by Frank Wood, and the General, a Boer, to whom Dakin Matthews brings a fine sense of despoiled but still vaguely perceptible eminence. These former battlefield foes take refuge in memories of their great exploits, and the delusion that they will return to their homelands, which they recall as veritable paradises.
Bill Irwin brings a brilliant comic physicality to his role as the former circus worker and con artist Ed Mosher. At almost four hours, “The Iceman Cometh” is a very long dark-night-of-the-soul play, and Irwin’s Ed livens up the party considerably, whether he’s slyly sneaking a bottle to expertly pour himself a drink behind his back, or regaling the crew with a story of pulling a con on his own sister — Harry’s dead wife, no less.
All await the arrival of Hickey, to celebrate Harry’s birthday as he always does, with a communal sense of almost feverish intensity. Hickey’s epic benders have been like holidays from the monotonous swamp of self-disgust in which they live. And so when Washington’s Hickey, who has the blazing magnetism of an evangelical preacher in full flight (he’s actually a minister’s son), barrels into the saloon, unleashing that megawatt smile, breaking into an informal dance and generally spreading a sense of all-embracing joviality, they set aside their grudging miseries and prepare for a celebration.
But something doesn’t sit well; the atmosphere of blissful forgetfulness remains elusive. The streetwalker Cora (a blowsy but good-hearted Tammy Blanchard) spotted Hickey before he arrived, and sensed he was “different, or somethin’.” And after Hickey has given Harry and his bartender Rocky (the excellent Danny McCarthy, alternately abusive and kindly) the order to keep the booze flowing, Hickey reveals that he has, in fact, radically changed. Once their boon companion, now he will be their savior, curing them of the false hopes they have been living with — the “pipe dreams” that sustain them but also keep them from taking the cure he has taken: “honesty with yourself,” as he puts it.
Such are Hickey’s powers of persuasion that soon most of the characters are buying his bill of goods. Sure, Cora and Chuck (Danny Mastrogiorgio) are going to get her out of the life and buy that farm in Long Island they’ve been talking about forever — or should it be New Jersey? The rather bluntly nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow, played by Reg Rogers with a funny, woozy swagger, will get his perpetually disheveled self in order and see about getting his reporting job back. And Pearl (Carolyn Braver) and Margie (Nina Grollman) aren’t really “whores” at all, just “tarts,” and Rocky, to whom they give a chunk of their earnings, isn’t a pimp at all.
There’s just one character who senses almost with an animal instinct that Hickey has not brought the promise of new life into the saloon, but perhaps something closer to a death sentence. Larry Slade (David Morse), the jaded ex-anarchist whose own delusion, zeroed in on mercilessly by Hickey, is that he’s contentedly awaiting his own demise, bridles at Hickey’s needling. In this crucial role, Morse is absolutely superb: His Slade is smart enough to know that the cure Hickey’s peddling may be worse than the disease, and he watches with some fury but mostly a tender compassion as one by one the characters try, and fail, to shed the cocoon of illusions they live in.
The meat of the play’s final act is Hickey’s long monologue, in which he reveals the truth about how he acquired the new sense of freedom that has converted him from a fellow bottom feeder to a man free from illusions and the self-hatred they feed. Wolfe makes a daring — and debatable — choice in having Washington set himself down in a chair at the lip of the stage, and without leaving the chair, directly address the monologue to the audience.
On the down side: Having him seated in one place underscores the repetitions that dot the long soliloquy. But at the same time, being put in closer proximity to the cool earnestness with which Washington’s Hickey unfolds his history makes it somehow more chilling. This is the first “Iceman” I’ve seen in which the surface Hickey, who seems so smooth, likable and sensible, even as he is recounting a shocking act of violence, truly seems to have moved beyond the trap of his life into another darker trap of madness.
While it certainly has its longueurs, “The Iceman Cometh” drums home a painful truth that cuts to the heart of much human experience. Sure, we can look on its grotesque characters with a measure of pity that puts us above them, but only the most hardhearted, or perhaps self-deluded, would deny that for most of us life is more comfortable with a perpetually stirring belief that the future may be brighter than the past or present. In fact, to live without a shred of hope might be a reasonable definition of madness. The better tomorrows we cannot resist dreaming of perhaps serve a real purpose: keeping us on the right side of sanity.
“The Iceman Cometh” opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Thurs., April 26, 2018.
Creative: Written 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.
Producers: Produced by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Universal Theatrical Group, Eric Falkenstein, Dan Frishwasser, The John Gore Organization, James L. Nederlander, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, Candy Spelling, Stephen C. Byrd & Alia Jones-Harvey, Patty Baker, Diana DiMenna, David Mirvish, Wendy Federman & Heni Koenigsberg, Benjamin Lowy & Adrian Salpeter and Jason Blum.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Bill Irwin, Colm Meaney, David Morse, 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, Frank Wood.