The down and out bar/ boarding house in which we find ourselves runs on rotgut “cyanide cut with carbolic acid to give it a mellow flavor”, pipe dreams, and the benevolence of proprietor/drunk Harry Hope who hasn’t left the building in the 20 years since his wife died. (Colm Meaney in a muscular performance.)
Its tribe is disproportionately made up of once-solid citizens identified by suits gone to seed. (Credit the excellent aesthetics of Designer Ann Roth) In fact, the only one in working man’s apparel is disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade (David Morse) nicknamed “Philosopher,” who protests he’s waiting for death.
Denzel Washington and David Morse
How the place stays afloat is a mystery. No one pays their bills. The only working residents are streetwalkers (don’t call them whores) Cora (Tammy Blanchard)-an independent whose fantasy is to marry day bartender Chuck (Danny Mastrogiorgio), Pearl (Carolyn Braver) and Margie (Nina Grollman), the latter two “managed” (don’t call it pimped) by night barkeep Rocky Pioggi (Danny McCarthy, a natural in the role).
Inhabitants are in a sustained state of brotherly petrifaction except, perhaps, when hardware drummer Theodore Hickman aka Hickey (Denzel Washington) comes home for his semi-annual, pie-eyed blow-out. Generous and bombastic, the salesman represents Fourth of July, Christmas, and surprise! Godot rolled into one.
Michael Potts, Denzel Washington and the Company
This time, however, he arrives a changed man. “I’ve seen the light.” Robust, sober, and maniacally evangelical, Hickey is determined to rid each and every inebriated soul of delusions he feels hold them back from full lives. The only outsider, 18 year-old Don Parrit (an auspicious debut by Austin Butler) is also deeply affected. Having tracked down Larry, once his mother’s boyfriend, in search of absolution, the boy is stripped of his own denial leaving no ground beneath his feet- at first figuratively, then literally.
Harry’s birthday party is an opulent disaster. Remember the old adage that waking a sleepwalker can result in at the least massive disorientation, at the worst violence? The bar’s occupants are pushed past the stability of known demons into frightening reality. Only Larry questions Hickey’s compulsion. By the time the unexpected truth is lengthily confessed (with dissolution of the fourth wall), everyone has returned to the nest weary and failed. Even liquor no longer helps.
David Morse, Colm Meaney, Danny McCarthy, Denzel Washington
Rationalization that eventually restores original “balance” shows astute recognition of the human condition. Who better than alcoholic playwright Eugene O’Neill to explore the vicissitudes of chronic boozers? That he does so employing diverse, well drawn victims of the disease keeps the show from straying into one note perception despite repetition of information. A sterling cast makes the most of every moment. It includes:
Bill Irwin (infinitely nuanced) as Harry’s grifter brother-in-law Ed Mosher once in the circus, Neal Huff as blueblood/ivy graduate Willie Oban (DTs are visceral), Michael Potts as the only African American Joe Mott, former owner of a gambling house (with deft vestiges of former status), Frank Wood’s Cecil Lewis and Daken Matthews’ Piet Wetjoen, on opposite sides during The Boer War, now boon companions (fine accents and soldierly manner), Reg Rogers as ex-war correspondent Jimmy Tomorrow (elegant even in dissolution), Clark Middleton as Hugo Kalmar who’s done time for anarchist activities and remains in silent stupor except when roused to repeat the same lines like a horror film wind-up toy (aptly unnerving and pathetic), Jack McGee, Thomas Michael Hammond, Joe Forbrich.
David Morse’s Larry is so insular, I find him less credible than his peers. Though he vibrates anger and exhaustion, redundant outbursts and a single facial expression are difficult to swallow.
As Hickey, Denzel Washington is marvelous glad-handing or insisting. He dances up the aisle waking up the somnambulist bar like a blast of fresh air. Ministration is as dark as it is ostensibly well intended. The character’s last monologue is so cold, it’s almost abstract. There are, however, group moments in which the actor apparently feels he must stand out-exaggerated stammering seems to be an attempt at depicting emotion a camera can’t catch.
Director George C. Wolf applies an eagle eye to both interior and exterior characterization. Use of the large stage is reasoned/believable. Pacing through the extremely long piece is adroit.
Sets by Santo Loquasto offer radically different points of view on the same location usually depicted as claustrophobic…creating space to breathe. Details are artistic without seeming unreal. Lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer adds immeasurably to atmosphere.
The play’s title comes from a running joke between Hickey and the establishment’s denizens in which he returns home to find his wife “rolling in the hay with the iceman”- a takeoff on the old milkman joke.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Michael Potts, Colm Meaney, Denzel Washington, Jack McGee (behind), Tammy Blanchard, Neal Huff, Reg Rogers, Dakin Matthews
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre 242 West 45th Street