“Frozen Pipe Dreams”
Much as I admire The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s prolonged barroom drama of 1946 about the hopelessness of hope, its oppressively depressing picture of a band of flowery-tongued dipsomaniacs sleeping, pontificating, quarreling, and boozing is not one I aspire to see on a regular basis. Still, it keeps getting revived, its current showing on Broadway having been preceded by another one a scant three years ago at BAM.
Presumably, as with Hamlet, great actors at the top of their game can’t resist taking a crack at its leading role, the flashy, bon vivant Theodore (Hickey) Hickman, faithful sustainer of his drunken cronies’ illusions, or, as O’Neill reminds us, ad nauseum, their “pipe dreams.”
The fifth Broadway occupant of the role (sixth if you want to count Nathan Lane in the BAM production) is two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, who’s just been nominated for all the current season’s top acting awards. He succeeds the original Hickey, James Barton, in the famously underappreciated 1946 premiere; James Earl Jones in 1973; Jason Robards (whose portrayal in the epochal 1956 Off-Broadway revival at Circle in the Square was the first to reveal Iceman’s masterpiece qualities); and Kevin Spacey in 1999.
|Michael Potts, Denzel Washington, and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
George C. Wolfe’s staging, at the Jacobs Theatre, has trimmed the drama by about a fifth but it still runs nearly four hours. As I noted of the much better BAM production, the play’s duration (even in the new version) “makes one conscious of its overly repetitive thematic points, its wordiness, and its excess of self-pitying characters.”
As the traveling salesman who, after a life-changing experience, abandons his pipe dreams and seeks to smash those sustaining a band of self-deluded drunks, Washington is charming, conflicted, and persuasive. His supporting company, however, despite its inclusion of some reliable “name” actors, falls short. Not even the usually compelling David Morse, in the major role of Larry Slade, the drunken wreck of a one-time syndicalist-anarchist, can find the key to making us care about him.
|Denzel Washington, David Morse. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
The quoted paragraphs that follow are, with a few emendations, borrowed from my remarks on the 2015 revival but use the names of the current actors:
|David Morse, Denzel Washington, Colm Meaney. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
“The Iceman Cometh, set in 1912 and loosely based on O'Neill's own experiences at a lower West Side dive, has been called an American The Lower Depths because of its incisive picture of the boozers, pimps, tarts (a term they prefer to 'whores'), anarchists, gamblers, con men, war vets, and dreamers frequenting Harry Hope’s (Colm Meaney) bar and flophouse. These bums do little more than drink and sleep at Harry’s, surviving on glorified memories and romantic illusions of one day being able to restore their broken lives.
|David Morse, Colm Meaney, Danny McCarthy, Denzel Washington. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
“O’Neill’s title, an allusion to Jesus, derives from the biblical phrase (Matthew 25:6), ‘The bridegroom cometh.’ The iceman features in a gag the barflies love to hear Hickey tell about finding his wife in bed with the iceman, a comic image that ultimately turns in on itself to represent death.
“The play touches on pre-World War I racial attitudes, as represented by Joe Mott (Michael Potts), a black gambler, and the Boer War, personified by a former correspondent, nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow (Reg Rogers), and a friendly rivalry between Piet Wetjoen (Dakin Matthew), a one-time Boer commando, and Cecil Lewis (Frank Wood), a British infantry officer.
“Radical politics are represented by former anarchist editor Hugo Kalmar (Clark Middleton), Larry Slade, and young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), who has turned in his anarchist mother to the police. There are others, of course [including renowned actor-clown Bill Irwin as Ed Mosher], too many to mention, and O’Neill gives each his or her moment in the dying light, often with one or more dramatic arias. . . .
|Front: Michael Potts, Colm Meaney, Denzel Washington, Reg Rogers, and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
“At the start, these depressives are waiting for Hickey, the boozing glad-hander, to arrive and help sustain their fantasies; Hickey, however, is a new man, off the sauce, and determined to get the shocked derelicts to abandon the bottle, give up their delusions, and unblinkingly face the truth about themselves. The play eventually displays the gloomy results of his message, and the reason for Hickey’s conversion.”
|Denzel Washington and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
The dramatic highlight arrives when Hickey delivers a 15-minute, tour-de-force confession that Wolfe stages by having Washington pull one of the bentwood chairs to down center and speak directly to the audience. This is a puzzling, fourth wall-breaking device that points to its own self-consciousness and destroys whatever illusion of reality the play has thus far created.
|Denzel Washington. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
We might, perhaps, conclude that Hickey is bursting not only the pipe dreams of his rapt alcoholic listeners but, assuming we’ve been regarding the world on stage as a real one, ours as well. True or not, most of the production is played at so pumped up and pseudo-operatic a level that there hasn’t been a single moment when it was possible to become absorbed in the lives of the characters as if they were actual people.
Unlike Robert Falls’s nuanced, far more subtly crafted BAM production, Wolfe’s is like an acting Olympics in which each performer seems to be competing with his or her colleagues. It’s about as far from being a true ensemble as O’Neill was from being a teetotaler. Superficial character business supersedes truthful naturalness, including phony New York accents from both the tarts and tipplers that only increase the feeling of artificiality.
O’Neill shifts the essentially plotless action from one set of characters to another—during which one pipe dream piles on another—to sustain interest until Hickey’s grand entrance, nearly an hour into the play. In this production, it also forces Hickey’s already oversized persona to be even bigger than life to compensate for the high-pitched tone the play has reached before his appearance.
Surprisingly, distinguished set designer Santo Loquasto's uninteresting depictions of Harry Hope’s gritty saloon are little more than atmospheric arrangements of chairs and tables set off by brick pillars, a substantial bar, and an overhead passageway. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s dim lighting creates an appropriately glum feeling in this spare environment. Kevin Depinet’s painterly setting in the BAM revival was far more suitable, using forced perspective to create a slightly expressionistic feeling that gave the production a sense of heightened reality.
Costumer Ann Roth, while dressing the hookers in effective period clothes, has given the men duds that are only barely redolent of 1912; some characters, like Chuck Morello (Danny Mastrogiorgio), with his green suspenders and straw fedora, look like they belong several decades in the future. How the odd-looking fabric for Hickey’s black suit was chosen is anybody’s guess.
|Denzel Washington and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
To return to what I wrote after seeing BAM's 2015 revival:
“The Iceman Cometh is a somber, introspective, cynical, and deeply painful play, albeit highlighted by flashes of (gallows) humor. For an American play written in 1939 (circumstances prevented an earlier production), its language is remarkably frank, its commentary on politics and race surprisingly pungent, and its characters absorbing.”
That memorable version, regardless of its four hours and 45 minutes run time, was easier to sit through than the current one's three hours and 50-minutes, even with a solid Denzel Washington as Hickey. Now that this great actor has stuck his pick into it, I suggest it’s time for others to put The Iceman Cometh on Broadway ice for a couple of decades before once more taking up the tongs.
Bernard Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St., NYC
Through July 1