How many Iceman Comeths can a human absorb – much less enjoy – in a three-year span? So far, the answer is two. In 2015, I finally saw O’Neill’s four-act, five-hour barroom tragedy at BAM, in a rock-solid Goodman Theatre production led by Nathan Lane. (I missed Kevin Spacey’s much-heralded London transfer in 1999.) Now Denzel Washington, with a mile-wide grin and beefy arms he could wrap around the orchestra, comes swaggering on as Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, hardware salesman and determined breaker of drunkards’ delusions. Even though my gluteal muscles had only just healed as I trouped over to the Jacobs from Brooklyn, I was not bored for a second.
George C. Wolfe stays faithful to Iceman’s 1912 period, even as he and his designers mingle naturalistic and expressionistic tropes in response to this dense, weirdly patterned text. Above all, this version moves. Cuts have been made so it comes in under four hours, but more importantly, there’s a sure foot on the accelerator. The main drug used onstage (to organ-shriveling excess) is alcohol. But given the fleetness with which O’Neill’s dialogue and speeches fly, I suspect a bit of coke and speed was passed around.
I’m not complaining. There’s nothing quite as excruciating as ponderous O’Neill. While actors should be allowed to savor those acrid, soul-bruised arias of benders, toxic families and Irish-Catholic guilt, it’s pretty much agreed that O’Neill is our greatest playwright who was also an uneven writer. His slang and dialect work is musical but at times cringe-inducingly stilted. He telegraphs messages as if he were manning the Titanic post-iceberg. And he doesn’t shrink from repetitious mouthpieces. For example, Iceman is about the folly of clinging to hope when death is the only universal truth. The play is set in a New York saloon and flophouse owned by – aha! – Harry Hope. Hickey, newly sober, returns to his boozy friends preaching the evils of “pipe dreams.” The term is repeated countless times, an extreme example of O’Neill’s echoic style.
So it’s a difficult play, long and repetitive, stuffed with motley characters and ultimately quite depressing. Something bad has happened to Hickey’s devoted wife, Evelyn, whom we never meet. I won’t say what, but don’t expect a life-affirming surprise. And yet, done right, Iceman Cometh is cumulatively invigorating, if not outright electrifying.
Wolfe and his cherry-picked cast, happily, bring the electricity. This is one of the finest ensembles I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. Besides a fiery, zealous Washington, there’s David Morse (Washington’s castmate on the 80s TV series St. Elsewhere) as the jaded, morally paralyzed anarchist Larry. Morse is a brooding, hulking powerhouse who should spend less time on TV and more on Broadway. He was last seen in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer in 2008, and I can think of few American leading men who combine his muscularity, vocal strength and innate passion. Get him in more O’Neill, some Odets and Miller. As the play’s antagonist and alternative to Hickey, Morse holds his own against the hurricane of charisma and cheery menace represented by Washington. Hickey is a small-time hustler and con, the son of a preacher, who gravitated naturally into the door-to-door racket. Washington rattles off O’Neill’s fulsome lines with a sassy panache and brio, while giving full scope to Hickey’s underlying self-hatred and disgust.
If you know anything about New York stage troupers, the following names should douse your neurons with dopamine: Colm Meany as the alternately abusive and convivial bar owner, Harry; Frank Wood as disgraced British captain Lewis; Bill Irwin as Harry’s weaselly brother-in-law, a carny; Reg Rogers as failed journalist Jimmy Tomorrow; Michael Potts as Joe Mott, a resentful, African American ex-gambler; Danny Mastrogiorgio as Chuck Morello, jaded bartender; Tammy Blanchard as Chuck’s streetwalker fiancée Cora; Danny McCarthy as Rocco, another bartender and pimp with a heart of anthracite. They’re all pathetic, self-deluded, vicious bums. And the actors playing them are splendid.
Santo Loquasto does some interesting things with the set. It morphs from act to act, roving through back rooms and front. By the fourth act of Iceman, as the time frame of the narrative enters its 45th or 46th hour, the set has become deconstructed and minimalist. It brings to mind the last act of Our Town, as the dead townsfolk sit in rows of chairs symbolizing their tombstones. Here, the chairs are chairs and the drunks are still among the living, barely. For Hickey’s sprawling, coruscating confession (nearly eight pages, with little interruption), Wolfe has Washington place a chair downstage center and talk to the audience. It’s a pure, simple gesture, accepting the presentational (almost novelistic) nature of the text.
Who knows when we’ll get another revival of this caliber in New York? Three more years? Ten? Like King Lear, it’s the sort of classic that ambitious leading men want to tackle between the age of 40 and too old. But in truth, Iceman takes a village. You need a massive cast filled with MVPs, and a director who can keep the sprawling vessel afloat. I believe that Wolfe and his actors trust O’Neill and find the music in this symphonic masterwork. Most amazing: I feel deeply satisfied, yet long for more. Here’s an addiction I don’t want cured.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.