With seven hours of angels and five hours of wizards to take in on Broadway this season, can a case be made for four hours of end-of-the-line drunks? Yes, and a good one. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill's frequently revived dark meditation on the life-sustaining merits of self-delusion, is in good hands with this latest creative team led by director George C. Wolfe. (That stunning tableau is thanks to lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; costumes are by Ann Roth and scenic design, Santo Loquasto.)
THE ICEMAN COMETH Broadway Reviews
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Let's get straight to the burning question about Broadway's "The Iceman Cometh," Eugene O'Neill's 1946 booze-soaked saga of curdled lives and dashed dreams: Does marquee attraction Denzel Washington delivereth the goods? You bet - and then some.
Everyone shines in this production. Colm Meaney, Michael Potts, Bill Irwin, Tammy Blanchard and Reg Rogers merge the comedy and tragedy masterfully. David Morse as the hardened anarchist Larry is terrific. And Denzel Washington tackles the role of everyone's favorite salesman Hickey with a softer edge here. And if it's not the grandstanding performance we've seen in past productions, it is a most honest one from a gifted actor breathing humanity into this super-human character.
If you have a good time at a production of "The Iceman Cometh," does that mean the show hasn't done its job? I was beaming like a tickled 2-year-old during much of George C. Wolfe's revival of Eugene O'Neill's behemoth barroom tragedy, which opened on Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, with Denzel Washington more than earning his salary as its commanding star.
Each of the four acts plays in real time. Wolfe's approach is occasionally to suggest the surface realism of "Iceman," but more often he is stripping it away to expose the play's absurdist core. Maybe this is the "Iceman" that Samuel Beckett saw in his mind's eye that led him to write his own masterpieces, particularly "Waiting for Godot." Illusion and reality. O'Neill and Beckett's characters are flattened by the one, and so they can't live without the other.
But there are other good reasons to see George C. Wolfe's thoughtful staging of what many consider O'Neill's masterwork, a play that demands much from its audience in that it typically runs nearly five hours. Wolfe brings this one in at just under four without significant detriment or noticeable trims. There's still plenty of time to marvel at the fine cast, a solid group of actors who are the sad denizens of a seedy bar/flophouse on Manhattan's West Side. The men and women who gather in Harry's backroom to drink away their troubles are a pitiful bunch - hookers and pimps, an out-of-work lawyer, a British ex-infantryman and a couple of former anarchists.
Well before Denzel Washington's glad-handing salesman Hickey makes his fateful arrival in the dive bar of George C. Wolfe's strong new Broadway staging of The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill's collection of pipe-dreaming drunkards arrange themselves across their end-of-the-line cafe as if modeling for Leonardo's "The Last Supper."
The surest way to get as pickled as the self-deceiving regulars at Harry Hope's downtown New York dive bar in The Iceman Cometh would be to take a shot of whiskey every time someone says "pipe dreams." Eugene O'Neill was seldom one to go easy on emphatic repetition of his themes, and the playwright's bleak vision of men drowning their deferred plans in cheap booze can be as prolix as it is poetic. George C. Wolfe's revival feels on some levels like it's still cohering, the underlying despair remaining muted for too much of the three-hour-45-minute running time. But it comes together in a powerful final act driven by the searing confessional monologue of Denzel Washington's Hickey.
In order words, Hickey (played by Nathan Lane three years ago at BAM) would not appear to be a role destined for Denzel Washington - yet here he is on Broadway giving a first-rate performance in a first-class revival of O'Neill's titanic 1946 tragedy of shattered dreams, hopelessness and inebriation.
Yet the cumulative effect of this handsomely decrepit production is bracing. Director George C. Wolfe keeps things moving at a quick clip; not all of the bigger character choices pay off-and some of the actors are hard to hear or understand-but there are performances to savor. (I especially admired Michael Potts as a crapped-out gambler, Bill Irwin as a slick-handed ex-carny and Tammy Blanchard as a hard-nosed streetwalker.) In the end, however, it is Washington's show, and he seizes it with both hands in Hickey's climactic monologue, an aria of eroding self-deception boldly delivered straight to the audience. He takes us into his confidence, even as it crumbles.
Helmer George C. Wolfe has trimmed the play to a reasonable length (it now runs just under 4 hours) without losing the nuances in the various life histories of the boys in the barroom. But this is still a long play with a lot of moving parts. The first act, in which all the characters are introduced and roughly defined, is the most attenuated. Everyone lightens up - a bit too much, actually - in the second act, which shoots for comedy. But everything comes together in the third act, which spells Drama with a capital D. The third act is where Hickey divests himself of his own pipedream, ending the play with a gasp-inducing revelation. In a daring, but quite devastating piece of stage business, Washington turns his chair around and delivers Hickey's long monologue directly facing the audience. You want to talk theater? Take that, people!
The revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh-now at the Bernard B. Jacobs under the direction of George C. Wolfe and strapped with heavy starpower in Denzel Washington-is the kind of production that puts prospective audience members off "classics" for good. Whether you're a card-carrying member of the O'Neill Society or you simply flipped a coin at the TKTS booth, you'd be within your rights to run screaming from the theater by the first of the show's two intermissions. If, however, you decided to stick around for the whole moribund, infuriating ride, you might find yourself wondering why this play is considered a classic at all, how it's earned a place on a shelf so high that, these days, we can't get to it without sending up little hot-air balloons of reverence. You might be angry not only at the clumsy production but-blasphemy!-O'Neill's play itself.
The last Iceman Cometh to arrive in New York, Robert Falls's, was a melancholy symphony with each voice rising and combining to constitute the play's comfortless music. That's not present in Wolfe's production, a series of solos, many of them from the horn section. Cuts have been made to the play - it runs nearly four hours, an hour less than other productions - and maybe this has harmed the cohesion, the lived-in-ness. One experiences less a world and more a room full of actors, mostly good ones, each waiting for a chance to monologue.