Monday, May 21, 2018

The Iceman Cometh: Whose Play is This?

The cast of George C. Wolfe's The Iceman Cometh with Denzel Washington (seated, centre) as Hickey. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Initially I’d planned on skipping George C. Wolfe’s Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh because Denzel Washington had been cast as Hickey, Eugene O’Neill’s archetypal salesman, and in my view the stage tends to bring out Washington’s showboating side – even when he’s not playing the lead in a four-hour play that climaxes with a roughly half-hour-long confession scene. But Washington did perhaps the finest work of his career in Dan Gilroy’s movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. last fall, so eventually I broke down and opted to check out what he was up to as Hickey. And I must say that he works very hard in the role and doesn’t succumb to the usual temptations – the ones that made him exasperating when he played Brutus in Julius Caesar and in both the recent stage and screen versions of August Wilson’s Fences. The problem turns out to be one I hadn’t anticipated: he’s simply miscast. You have to believe that Hickey – who shows up at Harry Hope’s saloon for an annual blow-out with his hopeless alcoholic pals (in honor of Hope’s birthday) but this time with the mission of saving them from their pipe dreams – could sell you water rights to a desert. As Washington plays him he seems more like a derailed executive.

I fell in love with O’Neill’s play, the earliest of his late naturalistic masterworks, as a college sophomore, when I took a date to see Michael Murray’s production at the old Charles Playhouse in Boston. Richard Kneeland, a lifelong regional theatre actor, played Hickey; as far as I was concerned he brought the role to vibrant life, and I was swept up by the play’s grandiloquent theatrics. (My playbill tells me that Abe Vigoda, who was to play Tessio in The Godfather three years later, was in the cast, as the one-time circus man Ed Mosher.) It turned out to be a rather expensive evening out: we missed the last train back to Waltham – I had no idea the play would spin out past midnight – and I had to spring for a long cab ride, but man, it was worth it. At this point I’ve seen Iceman so many times that it’s probably taken up several days of my life, I teach it every other year in my American Drama class, and I’ve never grown weary of it, even of its repetitiveness, which is part and parcel of its amazing power. O’Neill uses the phrase “pipe dream” more than sixty times in the text: every character on stage has one, and most have two – an illusion about the past and a delusion about the future. Hickey arrives liberated, he believes, from his own pipe dreams and persuaded that if he can sell his friends on his method for unburdening himself then they can sink into their chosen besotted morass free from guilt. So he sets out to prove to them that they’ve been lying to themselves. He gets through to them, but killing their illusions has precisely the opposite effect from the one he’d anticipated: it turns them sour and defeated, and they can’t even get drunk. It turns out – as Larry Slade, the one-time anarchist who is their most eloquent interpreter, deduces – that what Hickey’s been selling them all along is death, because when you take away a man’s illusions you kill his spirit. But in this greatest of all thesis dramas, which bears the profound influence of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, O’Neill the master showman has a twist embedded in his twist: the action that Hickey says has brought peace to both him and his long-suffering wife Evelyn turns out to be the biggest pipe dream of all.

Every other production of this play I’ve seen, including John Frankenheimer’s sensational 1973 movie version, has begun with a long pre-scene beat that captures Harry and his drinking buddies sleeping it off at tables scattered around the back room of the bar. That’s what you see as the lights come up on Santo Loquasto’s set (which cleverly alters the perspective on the room for each act), but Wolfe doesn’t waste much time on the famous stage image. The play gears up immediately and we’re off. The first act is utterly splendid and much, much funnier than in any other Iceman in my experience, as Harry and the others entertain each other with the same banter they’ve been using for years but never grow tired of. This may be, according to Larry (David Morse, his voice an expressive husk, his hair handsomely silvered), “Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller,” but these men seem scintillatingly alive. Colm Meaney is a merry, mischievous Harry Hope. Neal Huff (he was Phil Saviano, the organizer of the abuse survivors’ group in Spotlight), as the one-time Harvard law student Willie Oban, is hectic, almost buggy, with an old-world Ivy League verbal affect and a habit of gesticulating wildly; he jumps up and down in his chair when he asks a newcomer to spot him a drink, and his hair looks weirdly like the Duchess’s tricorn mantilla in the John Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. As Jimmy Tomorrow, the Boer War correspondent, Reg Rogers has a fringe of beard and his conciliatory narrative to bring together the two veterans from different sides of the conflict, the British Cecil Lewis (Frank Wood, whom I’ve never liked better) and the Boer Piet Wetjoen (the always reliable Dakin Matthews), is sodden with sentimental rhetoric. Rogers played Tony Cavendish, the John Barrymore parody, in the last New York revival of Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family, and he’s equally hilarious as he attacks his extravagant lines here, popping syllables like champagne corks. (Wood and Matthews also seem to be in a Kaufman comedy when they talk over each other.) As Joe Mott, who ran a casino for African Americans in his heyday, Michael Potts has a vaudevillian presence and impeccable timing; he does wonders with the line, “He’s drunk and I’m drunker!” which he presents as a glorious revelation in the midst of an anecdote.

Colm Meany (centre) as Harry Hope, with the company of The Iceman Cometh. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Bill Irwin, as Ed Mosher, throws in some classic clown bits – my favorite is the way, distracting Harry by getting him going on the subject of his dead wife, Ed’s sister Bessie, he pours himself a drink not only behind Harry’s back but behind his own. His usual scene partner is the retired crooked cop Pat McGloin (square-looking, red-faced Jack McGee, in mutton-chop whiskers). Clark Middleton is the thickly and somewhat mysteriously accented Hugo Kalmar, another refugee (like Larry) from “the Movement”; Danny McCarthy and Danny Mastrogiorgio are the two bartenders who moonlight as pimps but won’t own up to it. Their three hookers, who insist on referring to themselves as tarts rather than whores, are a redhead (Nina Grollman as Margie, who sounds a little like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain), a brunette (Carolyn Braver as Pearl) and a blonde in Gay ‘90s ringlets (Tammy Blanchard as Cora). Wearing Ann Roth’s wonderful calf-length layer-cake dresses, someone’s cockeyed notion of fancy duds, they bring genuine style to these generally underappreciated roles – especially Blanchard, who is tough and brassy and commandeers the stage with a story about the john she just rolled. And Austin Butler, new to me, is remarkably good as Don Parritt, who’s chased Larry all the way from the west coast so he could confess that he dropped a dime on his own anarchist mother (Larry’s ex-lover). Parritt may be a device, but a device in the hands of a genius like O’Neill can be a gift for an actor: Butler is the third performer I’ve seen mine gold out of this role. (The others were Jeff Bridges in the movie and Robert Sean Leonard in the Kevin Spacey Iceman, which traveled from the West End to Broadway two decades ago.)

What you miss, though, even in this fabulous first act, is O’Neill’s grandeur. Meaney doesn’t go for it (the way Fredric March did, unforgettably, in the film); not even Morse does, though he has the most poetic lines. And since Washington isn’t a spieler as Jason Robards, the greatest of all Hickeys, was in the 1960 TV production Sidney Lumet directed, or a death’s-head poisoner like Spacey, who made your flesh crawl, he doesn’t go for it either. It’s clear Wolfe isn’t looking for that kind of production – but then he started with the wrong play. It’s one thing to make Iceman down and dirty and raucous; it’s quite another to turn it into melodrama. When the humor tapers off Wolfe keeps coaching the actors, one at a time, to yell while all the others stop dead in their tracks. There are far too many moments when you could swear you were watching Arthur Miller instead of O’Neill – and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The most egregious example is Potts’s exit in act three. Hickey’s scheme has turned the drunks against each other, and at one point both bartenders, Rocky and Chuck, slam Joe with racial epithets and he responds by pulling a knife and then storming off because he knows he’s not wanted among these “white boys.” Wolfe and Potts turn Joe’s departure into a statement and the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended cheered. O’Neill didn’t write a social problem play about race in America.

Morse and Mastrogiorgio suffer the most from Wolfe’s choice to flatten out the play – that is, aside from Washington. He wouldn’t have been right for Hickey no matter what, but Wolfe’s deadly self-seriousness really sells him down the river. This Hickey’s modus operandi is so obvious that you can’t believe anyone in Harry Hope’s saloon, pickled as they all are by years of steady imbibing, could possibly miss what he’s up to. The actor has one terrific moment, at the end of the second act, and another just before the punch line of his confession speech (the punch line itself is underwhelming), but mostly you just get tired of him. Don Parritt’s fourth-act confession is written as a counterpart to Hickey’s, but in this production, where he seems to be suffering from a fever that takes the oddball form of a talking jag, it’s Parritt, not Hickey, you want to listen to. This Iceman moves fast and is beautifully staged, and I’m certainly glad I got to see this tremendous supporting cast. But it shortchanges O’Neill’s magnificent play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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