Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 26, 2018
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene ONeill. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair and wig design by Mia M. Neal. Cast: Denzel Washington, Colm Meaney, Bill Irwin, Tammy Blanchard, Carolyn Braver, Austin Butler, Joe Forbrich, Nina Grollman, Thomas Michael Hammond, Neal Huff, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Dakin Matthews, Danny McCarthy, Jack McGee, Clark Middleton, Michael Potts, Reg Rogers, Frank Wood, and David Morse.
Part of the stasis is built into the script. Harry's is a way station for the damned, a place that Larry (David Morse), one of its more depressed habitués, calls "the last harbor" where "no one has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go." As the play opens, we are in a dimly lit back room of the bar, where a dozen or so men are slumped over tables or sprawled in chairs. From the looks of things, they could be drunk, dying, or already dead, just awaiting transfer to their final destination. It's as if we are looking at a room full of men who are in a zombie-like state, an image perhaps derived from the idea of a "pipe dream" being connected to opium dens.
The freeze-frame holds until director George C. Wolfe has each of them in turn bathed in a spotlight and then spring to life, like marionettes being jerked to their feet. Once prone, we hear their individual tales of bad luck, misdeeds, lost opportunities, and vague expectations of how everything will change for them "tomorrow." These stories, even with their common themes, keep us very engaged for a time. Each actor brings something unique to his character, and there are surprises and even comic turns to be found in all of them.
Larry is the "philosopher" of the group, a sort of Hamlet in his "to be or not to be" mode, telling anyone who will listen that his greatest goal in life is to end it, though he is too fearful to follow through. Cecil and Piet (Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews) are, respectively, a British and an Afrikaans expat. They fought against one another during the Boer War, but now they have bonded through their shared experience and talk endlessly about their plans to return to their respective native homes. Joe (Michael Potts) is an African American man, keenly aware of and angry about the racist world he is constantly having to deal with. But he is as caught up in a regretted past and an imagined future as anyone, with his dreams of reopening the casino he once ran. The drunkest of the lot is Hugo (Clark Middleton), more of an automaton than a marionette, who alternates through the entire play between being passed out cold and suddenly spewing forth with an outpouring of barely discernable anarchist rage.
Hickey, as the others refer to him, is someone whose appearance they are all eagerly awaiting. They know him as an energetic, happy-go-lucky salesman who pops into the saloon whenever he's in town, filled with stories of his adventures on the road and wads of money which he most generously distributes to one and all. He is the proverbial life of the party, and they can't wait to see him. As it happens, it is a literal party that is in the works. It is Harry's 70th birthday, and he only wants two things: to see Hickey, and to work up the courage to go outside for the first time in the 20 years since his wife died.
And so, at long last, our Godot shows up, just in time for the birthday party, which takes place in the brighter bar area in keeping with everyone's brightened mood. Tables are set up and decorated. There's a cake, and bottles of champagne, even a piano if anyone has a mind to sing. And here's Hickey, exuding all the exuberance and charm that he and Denzel Washington can muster. Yet something has changed. Oh, the stories are there, and the money is freely offered. But this is not the Hickey everyone adores. Instead of simply serving as chief cheerleader for life-as-it-is, he is a born again believer in getting everyone to sober up, face reality, and make those dreams come true. What a party pooper he turns out to be. From here on in, the play turns on the extent to which the characters allow Hickey to burst in or their delusions, along with a lengthy confessional speech Hickey makes at the end that explains his state of mind.
In many ways, and in spite of its near four-hour running time, The Iceman Cometh unfolds like a straightforward fable or a myth, albeit one that is inhabited by characters who represent the dregs of society rather than the likes of kings and gods. Whatever their backstories (and we are only privy to their accounts of these), they are not victims of some out-of-control event like the future Great Depression. This much Hickey does understand.
But what he fails to grasp is that their delusions, their "pipe dreams," may be the only thing that sustains them, that plus whatever comfort they derive from alcohol and from the functionally dysfunctional family they have invented by sticking together under Harry's roof. Hickey's proselytizing notwithstanding, what is the likelihood, beyond the brief moment when many of them turn in their keys to their upstairs rooms and swear to venture off into the world, that anything will truly change other than Hickey himself?
Director George C. Wolfe has helped each of the actors "find" his or her character to the extent that we certainly can tell them apart. Yet none is developed beyond the bit of shtick that makes them recognizable, not even the great Hickey himself. Because of this, and despite efforts to distract us by moving them to various locales within the saloon via Santo Loquasto's shifting set design, what we wind up with is a bunch of Johnny and Jenny One Notes who run out of music well before the end. It helps that these include such good actors as Colm Meany, David Morse, Frank Wood, Bill Irwin (as Harry's con man brother-in-law), Michael Potts, Tammy Blanchard (Cora, who talks about quitting the prostitution racket), and, or course, Denzel Washington. A couple like Mr. Irwin and Mr. Potts manage to rise above the general cacophony, but a dreary sameness creeps in all the same and leaves us by the end in a Novocain stupor.