Denzel Washington is a salesman for death in Eugene O’Neill’s boozy drama.
Theater review by Adam Feldman
Denzel Washington weaponizes his famous charm in The Iceman Cometh. Eugene O’Neill’s gloomy 1946 drama needs all the energy it can get: The play begins just before dawn in a run-down 1912 New York saloon, whose regulars have passed out at their tables from yet another night of drinking their hopes away. Into their placid river of denial dives Washington’s grinning, glad-handing Hickey, their beloved old crony. But Hickey isn’t on another bender; he has gone around the bend. With the drive of a traveling salesman and the zeal of a preacher’s son, both of which he happens to be, he cajoles them to accept truths that he says will set them free—if only paradoxically, by making them happier in their cages.
Over the course of nearly four hours, The Iceman Cometh chronicles the effects of Hickey’s disruption with almost hypnotic repetition, exhaustively tracing parallel arcs for almost all of its 16 supporting characters, including widower and shut-in Harry (a bluff Colm Meaney) and the ashen post-anarchist “foolosopher” Larry (David Morse). The language is stiff with dated slang; key terms like “pipe dream” recur literally dozens of times.
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.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Broadway). By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by George C. Wolfe. With Denzel Washington, David Morse, Colm Meaney, Michael Potts, Bill Irwin, Tammy Blanchard. Running time: 3hrs 50mins. Two intermissions and one pause.