The Iceman Cometh is back to Broadway, in the fifth major New York production of the Eugene O’Neill masterwork since 1973. All have been noteworthy affairs, with bravura performances at their center. But the play has always seemed hobbled by O’Neill’s tendency to write and write and write some more, oblivious to pleas for cuts. The Iceman Cometh is a painstakingly wrought four-hour play which indeed seems something like a long night’s journey into day. Or more precisely, a long night’s journey into despair. So how is it that George C. Wolfe’s production, starring Denzel Washington, seems more engrossing this time around?
Iceman rests on the shoulders of the Hickey of the occasion. Theodore Hickman, that is, a charismatic hardware salesman who successfully peddles his wares along the Eastern seaboard. (O’Neill might also have called his play “Death of a Salesman,” a title that was still available at the time.) Hickey’s message, on what is to be his final barroom visit, is dire this time: Salvation will come only when you recognize and reject the “phony pipe dreams” which offer false hope.
We’ve seen towering portrayals of Hickey by Jason Robards, James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey and Nathan Lane. Add Washington, who—like Robards—seems to have the charm of the world in his hands until he breaks during his marathon monologue in Act Four. Washington carries the play, as one expects he would; given that the man can choose to work where he wants and when he wants, we imagine that Iceman is back on Broadway solely because the actor so desired. Give him kudos for his extraordinary performance, his dedication, and the opportunity he presents to his marvelous castmates.
Equal attention is typically lavished on the actors playing the next two central roles: Larry Slade, the disillusioned and lapsed Wobbly (anarchist); and Harry Hope, proprietor of the “no chance” saloon where the play takes place. Both are played skillfully here, respectively by David Morse (ever-memorable for How I Learned to Drive) and Irishman Colm Meaney (who last visited Broadway as Phil Hogan in the 2007 Old Vic production of O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten).
What lifts this production, though, is the handling of the other 14 characters. Few have all that much to say; most are scattered, drunkenly, across the stage for much of the action. Wolfe seems to have carefully worked through those hours with each and every one of them. The evening begins with the cast ranged across the stage in drunken stupor, each body wracked and sculpted to form a Brueghelian tableaux of despair with lighting out of Van Gogh’s studies for The Potato Eaters.
As the play continues, each character becomes full and real to us, as opposed to just part of the background crowd as in other Iceman productions. Wolfe sees to it that all remain intensely present, even though O’Neill might have rendered them speechless for 30 minutes at a time. Watch Reg Rogers, for example, as the washed-up war correspondent nicknamed “Jimmy Tomorrow.” Rogers blazes through what seems like hours of silence, hanging upon every word anyone says as if his existence depends on it. Credit goes not only to the actor but to the director, who instructs his lighting designers—the ever-estimable Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhower—to make sure we feel every thought and hope and failure that flashes through Jimmy’s eyes while others do the talking.
Multiply this by a dozen and you can appreciate the manner in which this production illuminates the author’s intent. The performers include Michael Potts, the Yale-educated actor remembered as the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” man in Book of Mormon, mesmerizing here as the down-and-out gambling man/janitor Joe Mott; Neal Huff as Willie, the untried and unhinged lawyer who is wild-eyed from cheap rotgut; newcomer Austin Butler, as the teenaged son-of-an-anarchist looking to Larry for salvation and forgiveness; Danny McCarthy and Danny Mastrogiorgio, as barmen who run trollops on the side; and Tammy Blanchard, Nina Grollman and Carolyn Braver as tarts but not whores.
Bill Irwin is on hand as the circus flimflammer and freeloading brother-in-law of the proprietor. Irwin inhabits his part so well that he seems to be mumbling Harry’s lines along with him; he’s heard the tales so many times. The carny background allows Irwin to indulge in some rubber-limbed moves, but he is ever conscious of the need to defer to and at all costs protect the illusions of his meal ticket. Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews, two familiar character actors, are so vibrant and real as veterans of the Boer War that you might not recognize them.
Wolfe—wise man, he—once again surrounds himself with a perfect design team. Santo Loquasto’s scenery absolutely reeks of despair: dark, overpainted with decades of dullness, and flying upward into oblivion. Fisher and Eisenhower sculpt with darkness, hiding the truths from us but at the same time unobtrusively pinpointing every little detail the director wishes to enlighten. Ann Roth’s costumes are extra-brilliant: these clothes are worn and worn-through, as dead as the characters within.
The Iceman Cometh—written in 1939, initially produced in 1946 to a disappointing reception, and the final new O’Neill play staged with the playwright in attendance before his death in 1953—has always been a difficult evening of theater. Wolfe and Washington and a marvelous cast demonstrate that the play is indeed a monumental piece of theater.
The Iceman Cometh opened April 26, 2018, at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and runs through July 1. Tickets and information: icemanonbroadway.com