theater review

Theater Review: The Iceman Cometh Needeth Rethinking

Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh. Photo: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh — now at the Bernard B. Jacobs under the direction of George C. Wolfe and strapped with heavy star power in Denzel Washington — is the kind of production that puts prospective audience members off “classics” for good. Whether you’re a card-carrying member of the O’Neill Society or you simply flipped a coin at the TKTS booth, you’d be within your rights to run screaming from the theater by the first of the show’s two intermissions. If, however, you decided to stick around for the whole moribund, infuriating ride, you might find yourself wondering why this play is considered a classic at all, how it’s earned a place on a shelf so high that, these days, we can’t get to it without sending up little hot-air balloons of reverence. You might be angry not only at the clumsy production but — blasphemy! — O’Neill’s play itself.

The Iceman Cometh wasn’t always untouchable. Here’s a 1985 essay from the Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, detailing the play’s ascent from problematic behemoth by a much-lauded writer (O’Neill had three Pulitzers by the time Iceman, which failed to win him another, premiered in 1946) to canonical mainstay and regularly revivable star vehicle. The New York Post’s assessment in 1946 — “Action draggeth, dialogue reeketh, play stinketh” — is a far cry from the Times’ reaction to the production that starred Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy and visited BAM in 2015. Charles Isherwood wrote that he was “floored” by “O’Neill’s harrowing drama, one of his very best,” and “had to scrape myself from my seat, innards churning” in its wake.

Coincidentally, so did I, but not in a good way. O’Neill’s play is an infernally difficult beast, painfully long-winded and often — despite his own insistence that “the first act is hilarious comedy” — a self-serious emotional slog, and in Wolfe’s lumbering production these issues feel exacerbated rather than addressed. It hardly matters that, uncut, the play is closer to five hours in length, or that the current revival clocks in at just under four: It feels like eight. The production’s dragginess isn’t improved by Santo Loquasto’s dingy-ornate, period-accurate 1912 barroom set, which goes through four complete transformations (one for each act), requiring the heavy gray fire curtain to come down so that scenery can be shuffled around behind it. Not only does this feel indulgent and thematically maddening — like a Greek tragedy, O’Neill’s play requires a single location for its end-of-the-road story of fate and self-recognition — it also leads to real logistical problems. A note in the program tells us that there are intermissions after Acts One and Three and a “pause” after Act Two, but when the curtain comes down and the lights go up for that “pause,” audience members start heading out to pee and are told they don’t have the time. It’s like a scene from Noises Off.

What’s going on between intermissions and ill-planned pauses is more irksome still, as Wolfe, despite his long and lauded directorial career, doesn’t seem to have something specific to say about the play. This Broadway season has spurred ongoing debate about revival and reinterpretation, but that debate has focused largely on musicals. Its questions are of no less import, though, for classic plays. For instance, has a woman ever directed a major revival of Iceman, a play that hangs its entire emotional arc on the violence done to two women by men who claim to love them and are in fact driven by festering hatred? Might a woman director — or simply another director — be able to make something out of the play’s final revelations, which O’Neill clearly intends as classically tragic moments of anagnorisis but which are in danger of coming off (and they do, in this production) as noxious blasts of misogyny? Is there a way to channel Iceman’s deep, deep rage into something revelatory, not an enactment of the delusional, infantile anger (specifically anger at women) of disappointed American men, but a piercing commentary upon it?

If there is, this production doesn’t find it. It also fails to vivify the play’s dense, voice-y language. Like many attempts on O’Neill, Wolfe’s interpretation insists on treating his dialogue basically as naturalism, like the way people really talk and interact. But O’Neill isn’t natural, and playing his gnarly, spiky, endlessly repetitive texts as “normal” speech leads to a show that feels stalled even before its engines get a chance to rev. In the brilliant production of The Hairy Ape that visited the Park Avenue Armory last year, British director Richard Jones attacked O’Neill’s text like weird, heightened choral music, highlighting its over-the-top dialects and relentless refrains to stunning effect. He catapulted it out of the real, where it never really lived to begin with, and thus paradoxically found its humanity. Wolfe, however, has his actors grind through each monologue with broadly accented verisimilitude, and the ironic effect is to render the action’s artificiality all the more pronounced. Real drunks don’t snooze in a convenient lineup, awaiting their turn to wake up and rhapsodize for several paragraphs, before conveniently falling back to sleep to make room for the next guy’s aria.

These drunks, the Greek chorus of Iceman, are the deadbeats of Harry Hope’s public house. It’s a grungy dive on the Lower West Side that one of its regulars refers to as “The No Chance Saloon … Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller!” O’Neill’s not one to use one phrase where four will do, and in moments like these there’s a moody vitality to his prolixity. But often in Iceman it feels like his late-in-life Great Playwright status is letting him get away with things we wouldn’t accept from a writer trying to make it through a first workshop these days. Characters spout his central theme word, “pipe dream,” no fewer than 46 times.

Those dozy pipe dreamers include bartenders, streetwalkers, and a whole list of “formers”: a policeman, a reporter, a circus conman, a Harvard Law dropout with the DTs, a couple of Boer War vets, a casino proprietor, and a pair of one-time anarchists, all now tenants in Harry Hope’s house of foreclosed futures. The ex-reporter, whose name is Jimmy Tomorrow (he’ll get his old job back … tomorrow) and Harry himself (who hasn’t even been outside since the death of his wife 20 years ago) carry around O’Neill’s most heavy-handed names, but everyone in the bar lives on delusion and whiskey. “Don’t waste your pity” though, advises Larry Slade, one of the ex-anarchists and the house “Foolosopher,” as he introduces a new arrival, the young Don Parritt, to the bar’s “Who’s Who in Dipsomania.” Harry’s gang “manage to get drunk … and keep their pipe dreams, and that’s all they ask of life.” Says Larry dryly, “I’ve never known more contented men.”

The sodden, sanguine monotony is all set up to have a wrench thrown into it, and one drops in near the end of O’Neill’s first act in the form of Theodore Hickman, a traveling hardware salesman known fondly as Hickey to his friends. “Where’s Hickey? Ain’t he come yet?” asks Joe Mott, the former gambling-house dandy and the bar’s only black regular, near the play’s beginning. Hickey visits Harry Hope’s twice a year and he always brings the party, but this time, when he finally does arrive (and in this production it really does feel like finally), the party’s not so much fun. Something has changed the slick, smiling salesman. Not only is he off the bottle; he’s “seen the light,” found “real peace,” somehow awoken from “the damned lying pipe dream that’d been making me miserable” — and he wants to inspire the wastrels at Harry’s to wake up too.

Frustratingly, Wolfe’s production never once feels like a party, not before Hickey’s arrival and not after it. While hilarity is never really the order of the day — no matter what O’Neill might have thought —a manic, menacing vitality should be. In fact, Hickey’s no sunny reform evangelist but an angel of death, and with his coming, the play should feel alive and dangerous. Washington’s central performance, however, doesn’t ultimately give the show a shot in the arm. In certain ways, his casting makes sense: O’Neill described Hickey as having “a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability” and twinkling eyes that can “take you in shrewdly at a glance.” The role has a history of going to charismatic showmen, from Jason Robards to Nathan Lane, but it’s a monster in a mensch’s clothing. Like Oedipus Rex, Iceman is the story of a man who’s done something unthinkable, who moves from hubristic claims of self-awareness to shattering disillusionment and, if only for a flickering moment, true self-knowledge. And, as with Oedipus — despite a play structure that suggests three-and-a-half acts of denial followed by a bolt of revelation — the actor playing Hickey must find some way to take a journey in the role, a simmering, step-by-step descent into the pit that we can sense under the smiling surface.

Washington’s eyes twinkle and his smile is winning, but like the production around him, he often feels static and impenetrable. The veneer of smooth camaraderie never allows us flashes of the sickness underneath. As the play goes on, and various characters start to find Hickey fishy or even frightening, their protestations that he’s “brought death here with him” feel like unsubtle road signs on O’Neill’s part, rather than reactions bubbling up out of an atmosphere that truly feels increasingly dire.

And Wolfe hinders Washington by giving him the full celebrity treatment. One of the most infamous aspects of the role of Hickey is the character’s final “aria” — a monolithic speech he gives in the final act that leads to his moment of tragic discovery and the play’s climax. As Washington begins this tortuous climb, Wolfe actually has him pick up a chair, carry it to downstage center, plunk it down with the entire company behind him, and sit. It’s a shocking move — like letting Pavarotti go stand center-stage for an aria, story be damned, because he’s Pavarotti. Hickey wants desperately to communicate something to his fellow barmates here (“I’ve got to tell you!” he says, “When you know the story … you’ll see there wasn’t any other possible way out of it.”) but Washington isn’t talking to them. He’s talking to us, and he doesn’t need our absolution, just our applause. He even leans back in his chair, launching into his story with a kind of complacent repose. The cast twiddles their thumbs in the background while we in the audience are treated to story time with Uncle Hickey. When, during the telling, Harry Hope bursts out in frustration “Give us a rest, for the love of Christ! Who the hell cares?!”, the words ring way too true.

There’s something else causing a tricky hiccup in Washington’s performance, and it’s not his fault, but the fault of a production that hasn’t made clear how this actor resonates in this story. Like James Earl Jones before him, Washington is a black actor playing the role of Hickey, a white Irishman who’s even referred to by one of the deadbeats as a “flannel-mouth, flatfoot Mick” (that line’s still around in this revival). In his recent review of Carousel, Hilton Als touched on the difficulty when “black actors are dropped into white roles in established theatre works”: He concludes that, in that show, in the case of Joshua Henry’s Billy, the choice works and develops meaningful resonances. But here in Iceman, the world of Wolfe’s play seems weirdly blind when it comes to Washington’s race. It’s jarring because the character O’Neill actually wrote as black, Joe Mott (Michael Potts, dousing his character’s anger in glad-handing tipsiness), is the brunt of all sorts of racism, from the casual to the viciously pointed. In his cups, he himself brags about once being “de only colored man dey allows in de white gamblin’ house” (yes, this is how O’Neill writes his dialect) and crows that the men there accepted him by negating his race: “You’re all right, Joe,” they said, “You’re white.”

When he’s sober, though, Joe’s ashamed at himself and enraged at the white men who made an Uncle Tom out of him. He even ends up drawing a knife on the two bartenders, Chuck and Rocky, both nasty pieces of work who’ve just thrown unrepeatable slurs at him. What are we to make of a world that acknowledges — and denigrates — Joe’s race, but seemingly can’t see Hickey’s? I don’t know how the James Earl Jones production handled this question, and I don’t want to assume that Wolfe and Washington have given it no thought. They must have — but I can’t see the results of it on stage.

I also can’t fully see the potential of much of Wolfe’s cast. It’s full of top-notch actors, but there’s a heavy pall on the production that doesn’t quite let any one of them shine. The nimble, rubber-faced Bill Irwin is intermittently enjoyable as Ed Mosher, the former circus hustler, and Neal Huff manages to get a bit of frenzy into Willie Oban, the unhinged ex-Harvard man. The usually excellent Colm Meaney does his best to hold down the fort as Harry Hope, though neither he nor David Morse’s Larry Slade — the play’s morose, self-flagellating moral center — can save the enterprise. Morse — with his head down and his big shoulders hunched, like a man trekking through a bog where his boots are getting sucked down into the mud — is so resolutely dour that it’s hard to stick with him, even though he’s the only character to make it through O’Neill’s tragedy both awake and alive. The rest go back to sleep, and in this production, you don’t blame them.

Especially if you’re a woman, it’s a major bummer to find that Iceman’s three-hour-plus buildup is leading to the emotional explosions of two different men who had to commit heinous crimes in order to be able to do what they really wanted to do all along: call a woman a bitch. (Seriously, it’s like this Key & Peele sketch, only … deadly serious.) The women actually onstage in Iceman are all “tarts” (they prefer that to “whores”), played bravely but stereotypically here by Tammy Blanchard, Nina Grollman, and Carolyn Braver. The women offstage are the crux of the play’s actual dramatic action, and their fates reveal that, if you’ve got a vagina in this world, one way or another you’re pretty much screwed. One of these offstage female victims meets her fate because she dared, on political principle, to live nonmonogamously; the other meets hers because she was monogamous to the point of saintliness. Her goodness made her bad husband feel even worse. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Though I’m willing (barely) to believe that there’s a production out there that reveals the men at the would-be tragic center of Iceman, the men who destroyed these women, as the rageful, delusional children they are, while also still granting them their humanity and pathos, I haven’t seen that production yet. Wolfe’s revival feels full of untackled problems, unmet challenges, and untapped dramatic energy. It’s enough to make you agree with Rocky the bartender’s sour assessment of the troubling night following Hickey’s arrival: “Jeez, what a funeral!”

Theater Review: The Iceman Cometh Needeth Rethinking