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A CurtainUp Review
The Iceman Cometh

You know old Hickey. I was never one to start trouble. But this time I had to — for your own good!
a— Theodore Hickman in Act II of The Iceman Cometh
Denzel Washington as Hickey (Photo: Julieta Cervantes).
The Iceman Cometh is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Eugene O'Neill's late career. Despite its length and large cast, this magnum opus has had six high profile revivals in New York since its 1946 premiere. The latest, directed by George C. Wolfe, comes only three seasons after Nathan Lane appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in an acclaimed production from the Goodman Theater in Chicago.(Elyse Sommer's review when it played at BAM).

Set in 1912, The Iceman Cometh chronicles two days at Harry Hope's, a hotel and bar in Lower Manhattan. The denizens of this low-rent establishment are a burned out crowd prone to grandiosity and self-delusion or, in O'Neill's period parlance, "pipe dreams."

A longtime resident, Larry Slade (played superbly by David Morse), describes Harry Hope's in a string of epithets: the No Chance Saloon, the End of the Line Café, Bedrock Bar, and the End of the Sea Rathskeller. "Don't you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere?" Slade asks young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), a newcomer to the scene. "That's because it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."

Slade's fellow residents may be down and out but, he says, "they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows . . . ." The streetwalkers — Cora (Tammy Blanchard), Margie (Nina Grollman), and Pearl (Carolyn Braver) — pride themselves on being "tarts" but never whores. And the men who manage the revenue these women get from turning tricks (Danny McCarthy and Danny Mastrogiorgio) call themselves "protectors" rather than pimps. (The cast also includes such pros as Neal Huff, Bill Irwin, Dakin Matthews, Jack McGee, Michael Potts, Reg Rogers, and Frank Wood.)

The scout master of this troop of losers is agoraphobic saloon keeper Harry Hope (Colm Meaney). As the play begins, Harry is about to turn seventy. He's counting on the usual celebration — a giant booze-up hosted by Theodore Hickman (Denzel Washington), who's known as Hickey.

Hickey is a traveling hardware salesman who shows up periodically for a bender (and always on Harry's birthday). For most of Act One, the saloon regulars chatter about Hickey, anticipating eagerly his arrival. They describe this joker's charm and recollect incidents from his past visits.

Hickey's signature off-color yarn, repeatedly mentioned but never recounted, gives the play its title. This once famous joke, so familiar to O'Neill's audiences that it didn't need to be told in full, involves a husband returning home and calling to his wife: "Has the iceman come yet?" "Nah," she replies from the upstairs bedroom, "he ain't come yet, but he's breathing pretty heavy now!"

When Hickey finally arrives, almost an hour into the performance, he brings an unwelcome message. A preacher's son with a checkered past, Hickey has been transformed by the oddest Damascus Road experience in literary history. He's no longer a drinking man and, instead of jokes and tall tales, he's spreading a gospel of unsparing truthfulness.

Hickey exhorts the dreamers of the saloon to relinquish their fantasies and face the world on its own terms. But he isn't disclosing all relevant facts about the transformative events of his recent past; and what Hickey can't fathom is that his ostensible truth-telling is just another level of self-delusion. In O'Neill's view, humans are incapable of escaping the addictive grasp of pipe-dreaming. As Slade says, "The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober."

With Washington at its center, this production qualifies as a star revival. But the star is supported by 18 unusually able actors; and the proceedings are directed by George C. Wolfe with compassionate attention to details of characterization. It's a high velocity Iceman, clocking in at a mere three hours fifty minutes. (The 1999 revival with Kevin Spacey ran four hours fifteen minutes; the 2015 revival with Lane was four hours forty-five minutes). The design team is an A-plus combination of Santo Loquasto (sets), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), Ann Roth (costumes), and Dan Moses Schreier (sound) whose work makes palpable the squalor O'Neill describes in his stage directions.

Washington's Hickey doesn't fit snugly in the otherwise balanced ensemble. What's on display is Hickey's newfound zeal for the gospel of truth-telling; what's missing is any remnant of Hickey the charmer, the card, the clever guy that everybody loves. And without that, we can't understand fully the hold Hickey has on others or the devastating effect of this visit to his old friends. But Washington's his performance is nonetheless engrossing and believable on its own, separate terms.

Take Hickey's famous Act Four soliloquy, for instance: Washington delivers it far downstage, seated in a chair, addressing the audience directly. This arrangement distances Hickey from the barflies, all located behind him, whom he's trying to sway to his transformed views. It's a surprising acting choice but it turns out to be effective. That speech, which runs almost 10 pages in the Yale University Press script, can be exhausting to audiences but here it's invigorating. Washington makes the sequence intimate, suspenseful, and powerfully poignant. Slowly, deliberately he earns our sympathy for an unsympathetic character who's confessing repugnant deeds and pressing irrational arguments.

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The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Cast: Tammy Blanchard (Cora), Carolyn Braver (Pearl), Austin Butler (Don Parritt), Joe Forbrich (Lieb), Nina Grollman (Margie), Thomas Michael Hammond (Moran), Neal Huff (Willie Oban), Bill Irwin (Ed Mosher), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Chuck Morello), Dakin Matthews (Gen. Piet Wetjoen), Danny McCarthy (Rocky Pioggi), Jack McGee (Pat McGloin), Colm Meaney (Harry Hope), Clark Middleton (Hugo Kalmar), David Morse (Larry Slade), Michael Potts (Joe Mott), Reg Rogers (Jimmy Tomorrow), Denzel Washington (Theodore Hickman), Frank Wood (Capt. 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
Hair and Wig Design by Mia M. Neal
Production Stage Manager: Narda Alcorn
Running Time: Three hours 50 minutes with two intermissions
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street)
From 3/23/18; Opened 4/26/18; Closing 7/1/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 3/22/18 press preview.

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