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Theatre in Review: The Iceman Cometh (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

David Morse. Colm Meaney, Danny McCarthy, Denzel Washington. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

It's funny how a production, even a flawed one, can cast a new light on a play. I've seen many productions of Eugene O'Neill's whiskey-soaked masterpiece, but it wasn't until the other day, at the Jacobs, that I had a sudden flash: The star part in The Iceman Cometh isn't really the lead role.

The star, you will remember, is Theodore Hickman, aka Hickey, the traveling salesman who, once or twice a year, breezes into Harry Hope's saloon, bringing a little bit of joy into the lives of the winos, basket cases, and assorted lost souls who flop there, hoping that a stranger will stand them for a shot or two. ("Don't be a fool! Buy me a drink!" So says Hugo, the old anarchist, so addled by time and alcohol that he is at a loss to explain exactly how the second sentence connects to the first.) Hickey is a traveling salesman, a professional joke-teller and glad-hander, always ready to buy a round for the crowd. He arrives at Harry's half in the bag and remains that way, bellying up to the bar and entertaining the crowd with jokes about finding his wife with the iceman. Just a mention of his name is enough to put a light in the otherwise rheumy eyes of Harry's hapless regulars.

It's a hell of a role, to be sure: This time, Hickey shows up clean and sober and with something to sell -- not the pots and pans that are his usual trade but a kind of secular salvation. He wants Harry's barflies to face down the pipe dreams that have left them pickled in booze and mired in misery: The former foreign correspondent -- poignantly nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow -- will pull himself together and reclaim his old job; the disgraced cop, who got caught with his hand in the till, will get his case reopened and his reputation restored; the ticket seller who got fired for having sticky fingers, will return to his glory days at the big top. And there's Harry himself, who hasn't left the bar in twenty years, but insists that he intends to -- someday soon.

As Hickey keeps at them, during a birthday party for Harry that is as diverting as a funeral, a ripple of unease spreads through them all, souring into hostility. At the same time, certain troubling facts come dribbling out: Hickey announces that his beloved wife is dead, and later he drops the news that she was killed by a bullet. The play climaxes with one of the greatest speeches O'Neill ever wrote, a tortured account of a marriage that began in love and quickly degenerated into an endless downward spiral of betrayal and forgiveness, culminating in a so-called act of mercy that could only be justified by the most twisted of souls.

There's plenty of meat for the actor who plays Hickey, but it's a role that doesn't sit especially well on Denzel Washington, the star of the occasion. Hickey is smart aleck, a professional wise guy, always ready to let a crack slip out the side of his mouth; he's also a voluptuary gone to seed, stewed in hooch and coarsened by whores. Earnestness has always been Washington's stock in trade, however; if he's the life of the party, it probably needs a little goosing. He's never really believable as the sort of hell-raiser who'd stay up all night, boozing and telling dirty jokes, and he's even less convincing as someone who has woken up one time too many in a strange bed with a hangover and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He brings a certain preacher's zeal to Hickey's gospel of self-enlightenment -- an interesting touch because the character is the son of a reverend -- but at times he seems strangely distanced from the character he has been hired to play. Even more oddly, the director, George C. Wolfe, has staged Hickey's climactic monologue in the most artificial way: The actor places a chair on the edge of the stage, and, with his back to the cast -- the people he is allegedly addressing -- he speaks directly to the audience. He looks like he is auditioning for the role of Hickey.

Without a Hickey who can steal focus, it suddenly becomes apparent that, in many ways, the play turns on Larry Slade, the ex-anarchist and "old foolosopher" who insists that he has detached himself from the world and is eagerly awaiting death. By the time Hickey arrives on the scene, his story is, essentially, finished; his decisions have been made and his fate sealed. Slade, on the other hand, is under siege: Don Parritt, a young man on the lam from anarchist politics, whose mother was once Slade's lover, has come to confess his sins. He sold his mother and her colleagues to the police for cash, and he wants either absolution or condemnation from Slade -- it hardly seems to matter which. With Hickey calling him out as a liar, and Don begging to engage with him, Slade is the man in the hot seat, his façade of indifference subjected to the cruelest of stress tests. David Morse is an excellent Slade, acting as our guide to the denizens of the "No-Chance Saloon, Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller." He spars eloquently with both of his interlocutors, and when, at last, he can stand no more, his fury is positively biblical. Though it was probably not intended, he occupies the center of Wolfe's production.

If this staging can't really stand up to Robert Falls' production seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015, which featured the Hickey of Nathan Lane, or even the play's previous Broadway outing in 1999, directed by the late Howard Davies, with Kevin Spacey as Hickey, it still offers many savagely etched character portraits. Colm Meaney, his face fleshy and rubicund, his hair like a ripped-apart Brillo Pad, is a nearly ideal Harry Hope, mistily shedding tears for the wife he couldn't stand when she was alive. As Ed, the circus ticket taker, Bill Irwin is a real O'Neill "sport," turned shabby and lost in dreams of his disreputable past. Tammy Blanchard finds the heart beating beneath the heavily lacquered surface of Cora, who insists she is merely a tart, not a whore, and she has a fine partner in Danny Mastrogiorgio as Chuck, the snakelike hustler who insists he isn't her pimp. As Willie Oban, who is prone to the DTs and night terrors, Neal Huff looks like he is being shocked with electric cables. Reg Rogers' Jimmy Tomorrow looks like he should be dipped in a vat of lye. Michael Potts is fine as Joe, a self-hating black man with dreams of running a coloreds-only gambling den, as is Dakin Matthews as a Boer War veteran lost in exile.

Santo Loquasto's scenic design is a bit of a puzzler. Three of the play's four acts take place in the back room of Harry's Bar -- the other act straddles the front and back rooms -- but the set rearranges itself in strange ways: In the fourth act, the upstage wall rises to obscure the second-act gallery where the sleeping rooms are located. I could divine no point in all this moving around. In addition, the set design forces the action far downstage, leading to some awkward blocking. In any case, the lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, has a kind of intentionally sickly quality that suggests that life -- really anything like energy -- has run down to an alarming degree. Ann Roth's costumes are first-rate, especially the overelaborate ensembles for Cora and her fellow ladies of the evening. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design fills out the transitions with period piano tunes and a scratchy gramophone recording; one disappointment is the rather wanly realized cue indicating the suicide that brings down the curtain.

The Iceman Cometh is a demanding play, but in a really good production it exerts a tidal pull, drawing you inevitably toward the twin tragedies that are sufficiently horrific to send everyone scurrying back to their pipe dreams and the comforts of the bottle. That doesn't quite happen here. Still, Morse's performance can make one look at this classic play in a new way, and that's not nothing. -- David Barbour

(26 April 2018)

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