Sprightly might not be the first word you think of to describe The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s unsparing glance into the bottomless abyss that we may call life, but which in this writer’s merciless view constitutes little more than a living death. Well before the play’s self-evident draw, Denzel Washington, has sallied down the aisle of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre to take up pole position as the dream-shattering Hickey, director George C. Wolfe and his terrific ensemble won’t let existential torpor overtake the vigor with which O’Neill’s potentially somnolent 1946 epic is here served up to an audience.
One notices, to start with, lighting from Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer that over time lifts these barflies from the visual murk in which they are frequently suspended, allowing them all a moment to literally shine before they go down with the proverbial ship. It’s as if everyone is allowed one perhaps-final flicker of glory in the “no-chance saloon” in 1912 lower Manhattan to which Hickey arrives like a gust of air that takes a while before itself turning sour in a veritable monsoon of revelation.
The result is a feistier Iceman than you may be used to – and than was certainly true of the various productions starring, as their respective Hickeys, Brian Dennehy, Kevin Spacey and Nathan Lane, on which I have over time cut my teeth on this play. (The Lane one from 2015 remains my personal favorite.) It’s as if Wolfe and comapny have been keen at every turn to undercut the mimetic fallacy whereby an immersion in despair must generate a comparable wallow for the audience. That too may explain why it also runs a full hour shorter than any previous Iceman in my experience.
Hickey enters the play belatedly, only to wrestle it immediately into submission, and Washington achieves exactly that effect. The bonhomie seems as genuine as the black hole of experience that it exists to cover over, and it seems altogether correct for him to address his climactic confessional directly to the house as if we too are potential agents of release amid a scenario that will find no respite. (One is aware, too, of this Hickey’s smile turning imperceptibly into a kind of threat.)
Up until that point, one hangs on every (sometimes-muffled) word of an ensemble so animated that, at the performance attended, I mistook an especially rowdy woman in one of the side boxes for one of three prostitutes who lend a female presence to this largely male enclave of thwarted machismo and dreams deferred.
I confess to not always being able to follow the specifics of Santo Loquasto’s purposefully drab, dank design, which surely indicates more levels to Harry Hope’s twilit establishment than are actually probable.
But there’s no failing to clock the asperity and wit brought to the table by such disparate self-deceivers as Reg Rogers’ mock-gentlemanly Jimmy Tomorrow (talk about a brutal nickname!) or newcomer Austin Butler as the pitiable and guilt-stricken Don Parritt – a Hickey-in-embryo if ever there was one. Buried amid the cast list, Bill Irwin makes an expert Ed Mosher, a failed circus habitué, so in stark contrast to Irwin’s own career-defining success as a clown. And Tony nominee David Morse is an outstanding, spirit-sagging Larry Slade – the actor’s creased face putting one in mind of a younger Philip Seymour Hoffman in a play to which that titanic, much-missed talent would have been tailor-made.
As for Washington, one has to commend afresh the really quite remarkable commitment to the theater of a film A-lister whose passion for the boards remains undimmed across the years. What can he possibly do for an encore? The mind boggles, though I wasn’t altogether surprised to hear mention somewhere in passing of King Lear.