By: Isa Goldberg
June 2, 2018: The booze-soaked Eugene O’Neill drama, The Iceman Cometh, with Denzel Washington stoking the madness, is an experience. Running nearly four hours, it takes more than just the gift of gab to hold our attention. And this bar full of weirdos, with their all of their crazy delusions, make for a fascinating bunch. Not to mention Washington, a robust energetic Hickey, a salesman, who ultimately trades in disappointment, and failure.
A fearless actor, Washington, sitting in a chair at the edge of the stage delivers his lengthy soliloquy. Portraying Hickey, he is direct, open, and unflinching. As helmed by George C. Wolfe, the revival also boasts an extraordinary ensemble of Broadway veterans, David Morse, Neal Huff, and Frank Wood, among them. Together they create an intriguing study in character, or its absence.
In keeping with O’Neill’s style, the drama unfolds through a series of confessions which reveal the characters, with all of their shortcomings, and for all of their hollowness. Like, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Iceman follows the descent into drunkenness, and mental disintegration, while exposing the lying, and self-deceit which lead to the characters’ demise.
The inability to face oneself truthfully, is a central conflict for many of O’Neill’s characters. Indeed, the drunks sitting around Harry Hope’s bar avoid their inner turmoil. They either lie or attribute their failures to the lies others tell.
That disillusionment is upfront from the get go, when we meet Larry Slade (Morse), an anarchist who betrayed the movement. Having fallen into his own existential hell, he knows no exit. Making a self-assured Broadway debut, Austin Butler plays the son of Larry’s ex, also an anarchist, and now in prison. Looking to Larry to help him find his inner strength, he falls into the void.
The Movement, and the idealism it represents, stands as a kind of manifesto here. Clearly, it’s more of a front than a belief system, a pseudo-philosophy that serves them well in begging a free drink, and bullying the system for payoffs.
It’s not politics, or the nature of political authority that is examined here, but rather the psychology of human aggressiveness. Indeed, the underlying tension is not about the economics of society, or the poverty these drunkards have fallen into. It is simply and overtly, about the conflict between life (Eros) and destruction (Thanatos), with the latter winning.
The women in the cast, Tammy Blanchard and Nina Grollman, among them, can find few options in this jaded world. No more hopeful are they than Willie Oban, a role in which Neal Huff mines the pathos of a young man who, geared for success, winds up drunk and powerless. With his wild hair he flails around, suffering from the DTs. And Bill Irwin (Ed Mosher) sadly descends to playing clownish tricks just to get his hands on the booze. Impressively, Clark Middleton as Hugo Kalmar transforms, into a physically deformed, emotionally distorted old man.
Designer Santo Loquasto’s cavernous watering hole, looks old and dried up. Darkly lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, it feels like we’re watching characters emerge from a cave, only to retreat back to the shadows. Ann Roth has costumed these ageing alcoholics in suits of various vintage, and rags.
In Wolfe’s hands every performance on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is a world unto itself – a nihilistic one at that.
The Iceman Cometh ****
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
242 W. 45th Street, NYC
Photography: Julieta Cervantes