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The Iceman Cometh

A long slog of a play given a professional, if plodding, production, even with Denzel Washington as Hickey.

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David Morse, Denzel Washington and Colm Meaney in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is a long slog of a play, more a series of crisscrossing character studies, interesting now mostly as a fuzzy snapshot of the netherworld of pre-World War I New York City, circa 1912.  It is like a living, breathing version of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, the powerful exposé that exploded the myth of New York City as the land of golden opportunities for locals and immigrants alike.

All the people occupying places at Harry Hope’s Saloon had tasted some success and self-determination.  Now down on their luck, suffering from self-delusions and living on pipe dreams, they gather nightly in this pre-hell.   The list of characters and their interconnections and interactions make up the body of Iceman.   Since Hickey (Denzel Washington) doesn’t waltz in until an hour into the play, all there is to ponder is the push and pull of revealing, moving, sad conversations that mostly serve to tell the audience who they are, conversations full of sexual, ethnic and gender epithets that still shock.

A sampling of the sixteen characters gives an idea of the mood and ambiance of Iceman.

Harry Hope (a solidly believable Colm Meaney) is the owner of the establishment which is a combination saloon/rooming house.

The usually brilliant Bill Irwin plays Hope’s brother-in-law, Ed Mosher, a former circus performer, as a slouching, rubber-mouthed fool who sits mostly in darkness, his moments in the spotlight marred by overacting.

David Morse, Colm Meaney, Danny McCarthy and Denzel Washington in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Two women, both streetwalkers pimped by night bartender, Rocky Pioggi (a sturdy, defensive Danny McCarthy) add color and humor to the proceedings.  Margie and Pearl (Nina Grollman and Carolyn Braver) are giddy and shrill. Cora (Tammy Blanchard), whose boyfriend/pimp is the day bartender, Chuck Morello (a dark, slick Danny Mastrogiorgio), is the most intelligent and sumptuous of the three.  These three women have been directed to provide comic relief and too often verge on the cartoonish.

Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews, theater veterans of the first order, play Boer War veterans from opposing sides, while Reg Rogers makes a deep impression as Jimmy “Tomorrow,” a former Boer War reporter who fools himself that he will work again.  Diminutive Clark Middleton is Hugo Kalmar a former anarchist—the place is crawling with anarchists—who has become a Bible quoter and provides sad, but somehow humorous punctuations to the action.

Two outstanding performances are given by David Morse, a worn-out former anarchist Larry Slade, and Austin Butler as a young, confused, guilty anarchist Don Parritt who seeks guidance and forgiveness from Slade, neither of which is forthcoming.  Their back and forth arguments get more and more passionate as the play progresses.

Denzel Washington, the raison d’être of this production (coming way too soon after several recent stagings), gives a boisterous, almost pleasant performance as Theodore Hickman, aka Hickey, who is the “Godot” of Iceman, in whom the godforsaken characters put too much faith, a faith that, by the end of the play, is shown to be clearly misplaced.

Denzel Washington and company in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

There is absolutely no foreboding in his interpretation.  He takes the glad-handing aspect of Hickey too literally so it is difficult to understand his sway over the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon.  True, these depressives look forward to his regular visits, but Washington’s Hickey simply doesn’t fit in. He’s more worshiped than embraced.

His eleventh hour revelatory monologue—which is questionably staged to break the fourth wall rather than directed at his comrades—becomes a discrete vignette and therefore a gimmick, dimming its impact.

This production, solidly, if stolidly directed by George C. Wolfe, is, even with a nearly four hour running time, somewhat edited by at least an hour, though few will notice.

Santo Loquasto’s scenic designs change from act to act as if we have to see this saloon from different angles.  To say the palette of colors is dark is no exaggeration, but the lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer illuminates the dingy furnishings and dingy inhabitants brilliantly.  Ann Roth’s costumes are, as is usual with this legendary designer, period and character-perfect.

The Iceman Cometh (through July 1, 2018)

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: three hours and 55 minutes including two intermissions

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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