Theater Review: ‘The Iceman Cometh’

The peril of realization without desire
May 13, 2018 Last Updated: May 13, 2018

NEW YORK—“Pipe dreams,” those fleeting, rose-colored reminders of yesterday and ethereal promises for tomorrow, figure significantly in Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 drama “The Iceman Cometh.” However, the current Broadway production too often fails to look beyond these dreams and examine the pain therein.

In 1912, the New York City saloon and rooming house run by Harry Hope (Colm Meaney) is the last stop on the highway of broken dreams. The establishment is populated by drunken relics who have long since retreated from the world. As Larry Slade (David Morse), a former anarchist now content to sit on the sidelines of life, explains, “No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go.”

Harry himself has long passed the point of caring. He’s not set foot outside the saloon since his beloved wife’s funeral, 20 years earlier. The one thing these people still hold on to, other than the nearest bottle, is the dream of putting their lives back together. The turning point for each of them is always tomorrow.

(L–R) Larry Slade (David Morse), a former anarchist, argues with Theodore Hickman (Denzel Washington), as Harry Hope (Colm Meaney) listens. (Julieta Cervantes)

Harry, Larry, and the rest of the regulars, including several ladies of the evening who have a business arrangement with one of the bartenders (Danny McCarthy), are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Theodore Hickman (Denzel Washington), a traveling salesman known to all as “Hickey.”

A longtime friend of Harry’s, Hickey has a penchant for telling jokes and enjoying lengthy alcoholic benders. He stops by whenever he’s in town to have a drink or seven, while happily buying booze for anyone who wants to match him glass for glass.

In this visit, however, something is different. Not only is Hickey cold sober, but his entire demeanor has changed. A truth he recently discovered has caused him to cast away his own pipe dreams and understand that, if his life is ever going to change, he is the one who has to change it.

Hickey is now determined to pass on this realization to everyone at the bar, by taking away all of their false hopes and forcing them to interact with life again.

Hickey has failed to realize an important point, one that playwright O’Neill makes quite clear: You can’t reform anyone unless they want to change. And facing their life situations head-on is something none of the denizens at Harry’s want to do.

Another truth that quickly appears is how excessive intake of liquor can deaden feelings of prejudice, class consciousness, and racial hatred. These, and more, start coming to the surface when Harry’s regulars have their alcoholic blinders yanked off.

“The Iceman Cometh” is a play about lost souls and people who have long since hit bottom. It is not, however, simply about a group of people at a bar.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this production feels like. Much of the text is played too broadly, with the characters coming off more as lovable drunks than the poignant and pathetic creatures they have become.

One of the chief offenders here is Bill Irwin, whose character used to work at a circus. He hams it up too much at points, including overdoing the “shakes” when he tries to go on the wagon.

In addition, several of the characters try so hard to sound drunk that it becomes impossible to understand them.

What’s worse is that it’s hard to empathize with the characters involved. Late in the play, Harry complains that no matter how hard he tries, he can no longer get drunk. When he speaks those words, the audience should be able to see the pain etched in his face. You don’t. This is because of his continual emotional disconnection.

A lot of these problems must be laid at the feet of director George C. Wolfe. He concentrates on making Hickey the center of the story and neglects to bring out the same depth in the other characters. Hickey is actually the story’s catalyst, not its center. That distinction belongs to those in the bar affected by his presence.

It doesn’t help that the set (Santo Loquasto) never really brings to mind a saloon that has seen better days. In the first and last scenes, the set simply feels empty and timeless, rather than grounded in a specific reality. And in the second scene, the bar looks just a bit too well-maintained.

The cast of “The Iceman Cometh.” (Julieta Cervantes)

Washington does a good job as Hickey, a man who wants to be everybody’s pal. But also, as a saved soul, he wants to get everyone else to jump on the mental clarity bandwagon with him. Hickey’s actions reveal a hint of desperation, for if his formula for redemption doesn’t work on his friends, then his own change won’t really matter.

The high point of the play is Morse’s portrayal of the disillusioned Larry, an effort that shines with passion. Wanting nothing more than to mind his own business and have other people mind theirs, Larry is forced to confront his past with the arrival of a young man (Austin Butler). In a twist of irony, it is Larry who, despite his wish to be left alone, ends up becoming Hickey’s greatest antagonist and, ultimately, the person most affected by him.

The essence of O’Neill’s story can still be seen; but, in this production, too many elements of the play simply don’t ring true.

Also in the cast are Clark Middleton, Neal Huff, Michael Potts, Frank Wood, Dakin Matthews, Reg Rogers, Jack McGee, Nina Grollman, Carolyn Braver, Tammy Blanchard, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Thomas Michael Hammond, and Joe Forbrich.

‘The Iceman Cometh’
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 3 hours, 50 minutes (two intermissions)
Closes: July 1

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.