Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) always reminds me of an anecdote told about the drama critic, humorist, and film comedian Robert Benchley, who was, like almost all the characters in O’Neill’s epic play, a major alcoholic. A well-meaning friend once tried to reform Benchley by warning him, as he sipped his drink, “You know, Bob, that stuff is killing you slowly.” “So,” Benchley countered, taking another sip, “who’s in a hurry?”
Not O’Neill, whose play takes a leisurely but gripping four hours, and certainly not the layabouts and spongers who populate the West Village saloon where The Iceman Cometh is set. The massive drama, a series of symphonic variations in which the characters’ sozzled condition alternates with bouts of discomfiting sobriety, is built on two themes: drinking and death. The cheap booze is the sweet, consoling melody by which the denizens of Harry Hope’s seedy dive kid themselves into thinking they’re still alive, that tomorrow they’ll pick themselves up and go back to their old job, or find a new one. The darker countertheme is the reality that they know actually awaits them: an unmarked grave in a potter’s field or, at best, a quiet, hasty burial by the relatives who’ve been sending them stay-away money for years. The boozehounds themselves rarely sound that second theme. They may know they’ll have to meet it someday but, like Benchley, they’re in no hurry.
The year is 1912, and Harry Hope’s is a Raines Law hotel, meaning that alcohol can be served to its residents on Sundays, when ordinary drinking establishments were compelled by blue laws to close. Because no respectable traveler would stay in a fleabag tenement built over a saloon, such places mainly drew a clientele, like that at Harry Hope’s, of chronic drunks and streetwalkers; Hope’s saloon boasts three of the latter, pimped by the joint’s two bartenders. Like the older residents, and often just as sloshed, the sex workers and their pimps have illusions: This is just temporary, they tell themselves; the girls aren’t really whores and the guys who grab their earnings from them are really just honest bartenders safeguarding the girls’ cash. Illusion — O’Neill repeatedly uses the slang term “pipe dream,” which derives from opium addiction — is the basic coin of almost all conversation when the resident barflies gather in the back room at Harry Hope’s.
Sobriety and its fatal attendant, Death, arrive at Hope’s in the person of a traveling salesman who deals in hardware: Theodore Hickman, nicknamed Hickey, a life-of-the-party lush whose periodic benders have enlivened the crowd at Hope’s for years. This time, though, Hickey (Denzel Washington) comes with a mission: To save the assembled drunkards’ souls. But Hickey’s gospel, slowly revealed, promises no glorious afterlife. He means to make his convives see the phoniness of their illusions, so they can face death straight on, as he now does. (O’Neill thoughtfully gave Hickey a nickname that’s also a slang term — for a bruise or discoloration left by too-forceful lovemaking.)
This thoroughly unwelcome Redeemer’s arrival has naturally been foreshadowed by an odd sort of prophet: a troubled youngster named Don Parritt (Austin Butler), who has come in search of the bar’s resident pessimist, Larry Slade (David Morse). Parritt’s mother, to whom Larry was once very close, has been arrested and jailed for conspiracy, along with other members of her anarchist circle. Parritt’s claim not to know who informed on them is belied by his nervous obsession with the topic. Larry, from whom he keeps seeking some unspoken absolution, repeatedly turns away from Parritt, just as he turned away from the whole anarchist cell years earlier. (It’s constantly implied, though never confirmed, that Larry may be Parritt’s biological father.)
O’Neill’s structure is stern, solid, and tidily traditional. Mary McCarthy, reviewing the original production, compared the text to the pieces of cast-iron hardware that Hickey peddles. Salesman-like, Hickey drives the action, convincing the saloon’s residents to clean up their respective acts and go out to confront the various “pipe dreams” they’ve been nursing. One by one, in the third of the evening’s four segments, they go out to do so; predictably, one by one, they come back, having failed to face the test. Now, Hickey tells them, they can accept their failure honestly, without pretense. But like a double boiler, Hickey’s reasoned pessimism turns out to have a lower chamber: His newfound sobriety comes from his having disposed of his wife, whose love was the illusion that kept him alive, seesawing between benders on the road and coming home, hangdog, to beg her forgiveness. His last-act confession — the marathon monologue that is the play’s capstone — is cut short by the cops arriving to arrest him for her murder. The drunks, rescued from their self-appointed savior, explain away his anti-illusionist zeal as homicidal insanity. Only Parritt, who seeks another way out, and Larry, who finds his pessimism no longer a pose, accept Hickey’s gospel. The rest booze up and burst into song — each choosing a different tune, so that the result is utter cacophony. (In the jaw-dropping stage direction, O’Neill specifies which song of the era each of the fourteen characters is to sing.)
Famously challenging for its uneasy mixture of rigid form and loose-flowing prose — Eric Bentley once described it as “jelly in an iron jar” — The Iceman Cometh makes a daunting yet enticing task for directors. The characters are all strongly defined, but making them too distinct tends to emphasize the stage types from which each partially derives: the genial barkeep, the dishonored old soldier, the crooked cop. It also makes them seem too much in possession of their faculties for people constantly drunk. The weight of Hickey’s backstory and the Larry-Parritt guilt trip also require careful measuring: To pass them off lightly trivializes the play, while leaning on them too heavily drags it down, making a long play seem even longer.
We know all this because Iceman, respectfully but cautiously received when it premiered in 1946, has repeatedly proved its staying power. George C. Wolfe’s revival, now at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is the work’s seventh major New York production — not the sort of track record that mere cautious respect earns for a large-cast, four-hour work. Having seen five of those seven productions — as well as Sidney Lumet’s 1960 TV version, which preserves Jason Robards’s definitive Hickey from the 1956 Off-Broadway revival — I can affirm that Wolfe’s is one of the two or three best. He keeps the action lively, allowing the script’s more vaudevillian bits a slight natural exaggeration, without losing sight of the overall bleakness of these bedraggled souls. Not everyone onstage is at the high level of the best performances — the cast of Robert Falls’s 2015 BAM revival, with Nathan Lane as Hickey, was more solid and deeper overall — but the standout turns here give Wolfe’s showier version the looming strength that Iceman requires. Bill Irwin as the sly circus huckster Ed Mosher; Michael Potts as the embittered Harlem gambler Joe Mott; Colm Meaney as the grumbling, regret-ridden Harry Hope; Frank Wood as the dried-up British officer; Tammy Blanchard and Danny Mastrogiorgio as the hooker and bartender-pimp who dream of wedded bliss — these, taken together, make an ensemble that could give any show distinction.
Among the larger secondary roles, Wolfe has scored one big success and one mishap. The big success is Austin Butler, an actor new to me, as Parritt. The role can be played many ways, but Butler’s — nervy, compulsive, almost gibbering — is among the most effective I can recall, on par with Robert Sean Leonard’s cagier, slow-burning interpretation in the 1999 Broadway revival. The mishap, unexpectedly, is that excellent actor David Morse’s rendering of Larry Slade. Fuming, hyper-energized, frequently in motion, he seems far too busy nursing his anger to serve as the cynical sideliner O’Neill paints. Not that this is easy to do: Larry’s transition, from postured pessimism to a death-awaiting existential acceptance, is the most subtle and hardest to convey in the work. That an actor or director might try too hard to help the audience visualize it can be easily understood.
So can Wolfe’s most daring theatrical stroke, which happily brings you deeper into the work rather than putting you off. Knowing that audiences come to a show to see its star, he has placed Denzel Washington, for the gigantic final monologue, downstage front and center (well, slightly stage-left of center), with the people he’s ostensibly talking to seated behind him. This theatricalist gesture matches the action’s forward movement. As Hickey stops kidding himself and his pals, so Wolfe stops kidding the movie star’s public: This is the truth they’ve been waiting for. And Washington, presumably with Wolfe’s aid, has carefully sculpted the character’s way to this revelation. His performance overall is the finest piece of stage work I’ve seen from him since he first riveted Off-Broadway audiences in A Soldier’s Play a great many years ago. From his chug-chugging vaudeville-style entrance late in Act I through his eerily soothing encouragement of his former drinking pals to the rock-bottom darkness and sheer panic of his final realization, his rendering of Hickey has a completeness and grace that make it rank very high in both his career and the play’s.
Washington’s willingness to embody the role without holding back has a political importance, too. When Iceman premiered, O’Neill got in trouble with some influential folk — Time’s publisher Henry R. Luce among them — by telling an interviewer that he thought America was the worst failure in the world, because it had squandered all its best opportunities in exchange for “that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by possessing something outside it.” The greed and arrogance that drive our current administration are accompanied by incessant lies, from the White House and the Republican leadership, that bear all too close a resemblance to the pipe dreams down at Harry Hope’s. O’Neill tried to sound a wake-up call; we can be grateful that it rings out so loud and clear in this production.