*When two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington comes to Broadway, it’s always an event. Starring in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” Washington delivers a towering performance in the role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. The classic stage work is directed by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe and features a first-class ensemble of some of the best character actors in American theater today.
Written nearly 80 years ago in 1939, “The Iceman Cometh” debuted on Broadway 72 years ago at the Martin Beck Theatre, now named the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Washington is the fourth leading actor to star in the role of “Hickey” on Broadway since the play debuted in 1946 with James Barton. Subsequent revivals starred James Earl Jones (1973), Jason Robards (1985), and Kevin Spacey (1999).
Washington was last seen on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2014; he continues his stage mastery as the title character in O’Neill’s prized classic. The three-act, nearly four-hour production was a delight.
The play is set in the early 1900s in Harry Hope’s grungy and run-down saloon and rooming house in New York’s Greenwich Village. Harry (veteran Irish actor Colm Meaney) suffers from long-term depression and has not left the barroom since the death of his wife 20 years earlier. The 19 dive bar regulars—including two ladies of the night—are serial alcoholics whose sole purpose in life is to finagle free drinks from Harry and his bartenders.
In the opening scene in O’Neill’s epic psychodrama, the gang of slumped drunks and outcasts quarrel senselessly about their dysfunctional, purposeless lives. The first-class cast include Ed Mosher (Bill Irwin), who engages in trickery and prides himself on giving incorrect change to patrons for his own personal gain; Englishman Cecil Lewis (Frank Woods) and South African Piet Wetjoen (Dakin Matthews), veterans who fought each other in the Boer War who are now friends and hope to return to their native lands one day; and Joe Mott (Michael Potts), who looks forward to returning to the glory days when he was a shot caller in a black casino den. The only African American among them, Joe is denigrated with racial slurs by his bar mates and forced to defend his dignity.
There’s Pat McGloin (Jack McGee), a former corrupt cop who would like to return to the police force; Chuck Morello (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who promises to marry his girlfriend, Cora (Tammy Blanchard); Rocky Pioggi (Danny McCarthy), a bartender who has a soft spot for working girls Margie (Nina Grollman) and Pearl (Carolyn Braver) who he allows to stay in the bar for a cut of their nightly earnings, but detests being referred to as a pimp; and Hugo Kalmar (Clark Middleton), who lives in a perpetual state of intoxication except when he is pestering others to refill his glass.
Larry Slade (played by David Morse, who co-starred with Washington in the ‘80s medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” which helped launch both of their careers) is a former political anarchist and reformist, whose ex-girlfriend was part of the anarchist movement and jailed for conspiracy.
The atmosphere becomes charged when, nearly an hour into the production, traveling hardware salesman Hickey returns after months on the road to spend time with his favorite barflies, who always appreciate Hickey’s hospitable generosity and steady rounds of drinks. The jolly and charismatic Hickey has returned to the saloon just in time to host the birthday celebration for Harry, who could care less about his born day. Hickey, who claims he converted and gave up drinking alcohol, brings a message of hope and inspiration to his buddies and encourages them to give up the bottle in exchange for a healthy and happier state of existence.
Hickey’s “pipe dreams” message to the deferred and shattered and his delusional behavior casts a cloud of doubt and suspicion around the whereabouts of Hickey’s wife, Evelyn, which unfolds as Hickey launches into a dramatic and lengthy confessional monologue of her untimely death. It seems the self-proclaimed converter could not convert himself and has done the unimaginable and unthinkable. Washington turns in a masterful performance in these stunning moments.
More broken pipe dreams are revealed at the saloon, as Larry encounters his ex-girlfriend’s troubled and unstable son, Don Parritt (Austin Butler, who makes his Broadway debut), who confesses that he betrayed his mother and turned her into the authorities. Tormented by guilt and sorrow, Don leaps to his death.
The enduring themes of alcoholism, death, suicide, mental illness, dreams, hopelessness, and hope continue to resonate in 2018, making O’Neill’s 20th-century revival of “The Iceman Cometh” a modern-day classic. With A-list talent and a fresh vision by Wolfe, “The Iceman” will continue to captivate new generations of audiences to come. Even with its long running time, repetitive language, and overarching themes, an afternoon with the masters was magnificent.
Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” is a limited engagement running through July 1 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY. For information and tickets, please visit http://icemanonbroadway.com/.
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media strategist and consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She covers entertainment, travel, and lifestyle news. Quinn is a voting member of the Drama Desk. She is a contributor to NBCNews.com/NBCBLK.com, BlackEnterprise.com, HuffPost, and Medium.com, among others.