Despite Stiff Staging, Deft Denzel Warms ‘Iceman Cometh’

How do you stage semi-sloshed drunks mostly sitting at bar tables for four hours?

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Denzel Washington as Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" on Broadway. Photos: Julieta Cervantes.

On the page, Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth and imperfect four-act play The Iceman Cometh comes at you through a series of monologues, some raucous camaraderie, and spates of fisticuffs. Set over a two-day period in Harry Hope’s bar in lower Manhattan in 1912, lives are bemoaned, redeemed, relieved and perhaps resolved. These barflies create their own quirky family, sequestered from sunlight and the rest of the world. The stage is further populated by one returning good-time drunk who claims that he’s recovered, three tarts who bristle when called whores even as they ply their trade in rooms upstairs, and two cops who arrive at the end to resolve some loose plot threads. It’s an ensemble that can be balanced delicately, as in the Robert Falls-directed revival at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which privileged a coalescence of performances over individual showboats. Director George C. Wolfe’s new revival on Broadway starring Oscar- and Tony-winner Denzel Washington eschews any such balance, crushing the magical simplicity of O’Neill long tale.

Saloon proprietor Harry Hope (flushed and blustery Colm Meaney), and his bartender and small-time pimp, Rocky (prickly but paternal Danny McCarthy), keep the men and women of the bar vaguely corralled, and for the most part they stand aside as their various stories are delivered to the audience. Larry (wounded and observant David Morse) espouses anarchist ideas, and Willy (jumpy and heartbreaking Neal Huff) constantly references his Harvard law background and seemingly hopeless joblessness. The rest of the boys are either sleeping off the booze or awaking to joke, to fight, to tell familiar or all-new tales.

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Observing the goings-on, leaning on the edge of the stage, judging things from a distance, and often pulling focus from other characters, Morse’s Larry evokes the dramatic stance of Tom in The Glass Menagerie. When a new, young visitor, Parritt (Austin Butler), asks Larry to remember him, to engage with him, to help him through a gradually revealed problem, he’s rebuffed. Parritt is a leftover from Larry’s past life, one that Larry has little interest in revisiting. Ed Mosher (sweet and silly Bill Irwin), once a short-changing carnie who “always gave a sucker some chance,” delivers an elegant monologue outlining the benefits of being distracted while counting change. (Tammy Blanchard) enters with the boyfriend she wants to marry, and captures our hearts.

Life doesn’t change much during these four hours in a well-lubricated bar full of longtime deep drinkers, but O’Neill provide twists and possibilities in his highest tragicomic vein. The politics of communism and socialism, for example, loom on the edges. Who has a chance for a future? Who fights for what they need? Who fights for what they’re owed? Everyone on stage, there in that dingy bar, considers the chances they’ve lost over time.

In total, we meet 16 characters before Hickey (Washington) enters. He’s discussed as a man of great presence that many recall with affection, perhaps because he escaped the draw of the drink. Hickey, we’re told, would often tell a joke-story about the iceman, a version of traveling salesman stories who have affairs with housewives.

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The company of “The Iceman Cometh.”

It’s Hickey’s imminent arrival that creates a flurry in the status quo, and when he blusters in — ostensibly to take part in a birthday party the girls are arranging for Harry — Washington’s charisma warm every person on stage — and in the audience. Just as the character is written, it’s warmth that yields to hectoring, as Hickey can’t stop himself from lecturing. “Saving you from pipe dreams,” he says, justifying the way that he swats at the illusions of his friends.

Washington deftly manages Hickey’s combination of embrace and punch. Indeed, now that he’s given up the booze for reasons all his own, Hickey tries to cajole a number of his old comrades to emulate his example. If Hickey can see and lay bare the corroded truth of the other characters — “I’ve had hell inside me; I can spot it in others,” he says — we realize he is unable to transcend the pain of the truth of his own past.

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The Iceman Cometh, I also realize, is a directing challenge: How do you stage semi-sloshed drunks mostly sitting at bar tables for four hours? Yet Wolfe’s direction is as stiff as a shot from the bar. His final, most mistaken choice is his staging of Hickey’s potent monologue deep in the final act about the death of his wife. With 13 characters present, all but three (that I could discern) were stuck in sullen freeze-frame positions as Washington suddenly addresses the audience from the lip of the stage. We provide him his close up, but these on-stage characters are, just as suddenly, not present, not the community they have been throughout.

This physical world of these disappointed drunks receives some solid design work. Santo Loquasto’s set provides nifty shifts, from the bar’s front room to its backroom and then back, an upstage wall dropped, an upper-floor hallway revealed, and, in one overdone bit, a fire escape ledge that needlessly underscores a story better told in dialogue. Low-level illumination by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer provides the deep shadows demanded by the play.

The Iceman Cometh is part mystery — what really happened to Parritt’s free-loving mother; what really happened to Hickey’s wife — and part dive into O’Neill’s poetic realism. We have few answers in the end, yet when staged well, we can enter a community built of, and for, the core human need for companionship. These folks don’t have much, but they do have each other, and even if they fight and fuss, at least they’ll stake each other a round when they have the dough. Washington’s magnetism cannot force us to feel that feeling, and if it doesn’t exactly leave us ice cold, it’s no more satisfying than watery gin.