Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh

Review of The Iceman Cometh, starring Denzel Washington, on Broadway

Stanford Friedman
Stanford Friedman

Fear, despair and cowardice are the bar snacks of choice at Harry Hope's, that seedy "no chance saloon" and flophouse that the tragic drunks of The Iceman Cometh call home. In this distinguished and exuberant Broadway revival of the 1939 Eugene O'Neill classic, the denizens of Harry's inhabit a perpetual fugue state, circa 1912, where yesterday was the best of times and tomorrow is the reason to drink away tonight. Buy any of them a fifteen cent shot of whisky and they will impart their hard earned wisdom: Looking forward is so much easier than moving forward, never acting on your dreams means never being disappointed.

Act One introduces us to 12 mangy men. There is Harry Hope himself (Colm Meaney), who has not stepped out of his pub in a decade, immobilized by the death of his wife and placated by rotgut. And then there is young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), a would-be anarchist with mother issues. It's his first night at the bar and his last chance at salvation. In between sit a spectrum of lost souls including Rocky (Danny McCarthy), the bartender who tries to convince himself that he's not also a pimp, Willie (Neal Huff), a Harvard law student who transferred to the school of hard knocks, Jimmy (Reg Rogers), who has lost track of the difference between resigning and being fired, Joe (Michael Potts), a black man who once ran his own gambling house, and the mournful Larry Slade (David Morse). Another former believer in the anarchist movement, Larry defers his hopelessness just long enough to serve as our melancholy guide for the evening's dour festivities.

Act Two offers a kind of Last Supper in reverse, with a savior who arrives to betray his many apostles. It's Harry's birthday which means the much anticipated annual visit by Hickey (Denzel Washington), a salesman who treats the men to all the gags and booze they can swallow. But this year it's different. The now sober Hickey shows up with a new agenda: to save his friends by forcing them to realize their own hopelessness. This makes for not only a bummer of a birthday party, it propels the final two acts into a crash landing where Hickey gets the men to step into the sunlight, only to have them back and cowering by day's end. At this point, even the liquor has lost its kick and the only thing that can appease the gang is the realization that Hickey, himself, is a broken man who has lost his way. "Cheers", this is not.

Blessed with a sprawling cast of stage veterans, director George C. Wolfe constructs fantastic tableaus; the men and their ladies of ill repute filling the space with the weight of their losses, then breaking out into mournful soliloquies or two-man bouts of comic relief. Mr. Huff brings a drunkard's spryness to Willie, nearly tumbling down a flight of stairs but then sticking the landing. Similarly, the great physical clown Bill Irwin shows up as Ed, a failed circus worker who is flimsy incarnate. Mr. Meaney's Harry seems in good shape for a shut-in, but his bluster is meticulously crafted. The always fine character actor Frank Wood and the Falstaffian Dakin Matthews play two former military men now comically at odds with each other having once faced off in the Boer War. And Clark Middleton, as the once radical Hugo, is like a pressure release valve, blowing his top whenever interactions among his peers get too intense.

Mr. Washington plays Hickey with gusto, glad-handing his pals, then poking them, before ultimately revealing his own tragic mindset with a psychotic coolness. Being cast in this role solves a problem for the producers but creates a particular dilemma for the director. As his Playbill bio not so humbly points out, "Denzel Washington is the most lauded stage and screen actor of his generation." As a result, ticket sales will do fine. But in presenting an African American Hickey, O'Neill's commentary about race gets scrambled. His gambler character, Joe, spends no small amount of time suffering the consequences of the racial divide of the era, complete with name calling and the indignity of being thought of as "white," when flush with cash. So by comparison, it is hard to reckon the long-standing respect and good will the men have for Hickey. And harder still to fathom Joe's summation of Hickey's brutal influence, "It's white man's bad luck. He can't jinx me!" It's an awkward problem that casts a shadow of confusion over this otherwise self-assured production.

(Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

What the popular press says...

"If you have a good time at a production of "The Iceman Cometh," does that mean the show hasn't done its job? I was beaming like a tickled 2-year-old during much of George C. Wolfe's revival of Eugene O'Neill's behemoth barroom tragedy with Denzel Washington more than earning his salary as its commanding star."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Let's get straight to the burning question about Broadway's The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill's 1946 booze-soaked saga of curdled lives and dashed dreams: Does marquee attraction Denzel Washington delivereth the goods? You bet — and then some."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"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."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"George C. Wolfe's revival feels on some levels like it's still cohering, the underlying despair remaining muted for too much of the three-hour-45-minute running time. But it comes together in a powerful final act driven by the searing confessional monologue of Denzel Washington's Hickey."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"With his buoyant air of all-American optimism and innate decency, Denzel Washington is well cast (by helmer George C. Wolfe) as Hickey, the long-awaited bearer of false hope, comforting lies, and unlimited free booze to the washed-up losers who patronize Harry Hope's no-hope saloon. When the thesp sweeps down the aisle and onto the stage wearing a snazzy suit and a 100-watt smile, the whole theater warms up."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily NewsTime Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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