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.”
All that’s missing is a savior.
Truth be told, O’Neill’s rum-bums need their messiah a lot more than this production does: Though certainly built around mega-star Washington, this Iceman (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, with Scott Rudin leading a large producers team that includes Barry Diller, James L. Nederlander and Jason Blum) is so well-cast and performed by, among others, David Morse, Bill Irwin and Tammy Blanchard, that Washington’s late, happy-dance entrance almost seems a worry. Is something delicate about to be knocked off balance?
And in some ways, it is. Washington, who won a 2010 Tony Award for his performance in Fences, is at his best here when he’s mixing with the rabble, giving glimpses of the old barfly beneath Hickey’s born-again bravado. An evangelist preaching honesty and self-awareness but toting nihilism and self-destruction, O’Neill’s great flophouse antagonist is, by necessity and design, the driver of action and the focus of attention, but when Washington drags a chair to the lip of the stage and directly addresses the audience with his climactic, revelatory monologue, well, it’s a shot or two over anyone’s limit.
The play, of course, is O’Neill’s scathing yet affectionate ode to the human detritus of his drinking days, set in the downtown New York of 1912, where the regular denizens of a “no-chance saloon” are passed out in the bar’s backroom just as dawn is about to break. The few signs of life are mostly DTs, the set (by Santo Loquasto) sometimes suggesting a warehouse for the storage of corpses waiting to die.
There’s the ex-circus con man (Bill Irwin), the Boer War veterans (Frank Wood, Dakin Matthews), the ever procrastinating Jimmy Tomorrow (Reg Rogers), the black gambling man (Michael Potts) accepted by this gang for seeming “white”, several “tarts” (Tammy Blanchard, Carolyn Braver, Nina Grollman) who lash out when called hookers by tossing “pimp” at the joint’s barkeep (Danny McCarthy). There are others, each drinking too oblivion, the only thing that will stop all the self-deception and “pipe dreams” ingrained like whiskey rings on a bartop.
Chief among the deluders is Larry Slade (David Morse), a former anarchist who turned his back on the movement and life to settle into a paralyzing, waiting-for-death existence, romanticizing the Big End as much as he fears it. He’s our guide in this pathetic underworld, and a last-chance lifeline for the young man (Austin Butler) who shows up looking for a hide-out and absolution after his anarchist mother (and Larry’s one-time lover) is arrested for a terrorist act.
They’re all, of course, waiting for the Santa-like arrival of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Washington), the hail fellow traveling salesman who stops by every year to throw around cash and booze in birthday honor of bar owner Harry Hope (Colm Meaney), an agoraphobic who hasn’t left the premises in the many years since his wife died.
But something’s different about Hickey this year. He’s not only sworn off booze, he’s encouraging – forcing, actually – each of his old drinking pals to abandon their own self-delusions, or pipe dreams in the play’s much-repeated wording.
With all the insistence and back-patting of a born salesman, Hickey assures them that he, too, has found salvation by facing and abandoning the central lie of his life: He no longer blames his wife’s imagined infidelity (with the anonymous “iceman” of the title) for his own drunken carousing and womanizing. Exactly how he’s come to this new reality won’t be revealed until much prodding from his old friend and spiritual nemesis Larry.
Not to mention nearly four hours of word-soaked drama – Iceman is legendarily long-winded, repetitious, even grueling, a marathon of barroom philosophizing and existential hangover, ever in need of the steadying grace of theatrical skill (and cast appeal) to get us through the night and shine up all that glorious Irish American poetry of rotgut New York.
These actors do just that, starting with an impeccable performance from Morse (Washington’s old St. Elsewhere co-star), laconic until he isn’t, a study in romantic world-weariness and wrenching, obsessive self-loathing. Blanchard, Irwin, Meaney, McGee, Potts, the young Butler, to name just a handful – each as powerful as the next in an ensemble as outstanding as it is large.
As for that derelict savior, Washington’s below-surface intensity caught so effectively by the camera is of little use here, and there are moments when he overcompensates with a forced bigness at odds with his cast mates – a stammer during the revealing monologue seems either a brain catch-up or a showy note of uncontainable emotion, neither alternative good. He’s better when he uses that movie star allure – and it’s undeniable – as a crusader’s bait, his walking dead victims lining up to be flayed, pipe dreams in pieces.