The role of the salesman Hickey (Theodore Hickman) in Eugene O’Neill’s classic “The Iceman Cometh” has been a mountain to climb for ambitious actors. My favorites of those I have seen are Jason Robards Jr. (number one) and next, Kevin Spacey. Now Denzel Washington has given it his shot, and although for a while he shows the required bluster but doesn’t hint at much underneath, when it comes to Hickey’s tell-all scene about himself, Washington delivers with shattering soulful nakedness that not only reveals the hypocrisy, pain and derangement in his character but cements the hopelessness that O’Neill provides in his play of utter despair. At that point it is an extraordinary performance.
It helps that under the direction of George C. Wolfe Washington is seated directly facing his audience. Although the speech is being delivered to the pathetic liquor-soaked crowd in the barroom, by facing us Washington makes the confession seems much more personal. But he and not the stagecraft makes the lengthy sequence work with such devastation. As Hickey reveals himself to be warped with self-dellusion covering a hideous act, he is to be both pitied and reviled.
In the play that is nearly four hours long—but never did I wish to escape—the boozers await Hickey as their outwardly bon vivant who always nurtures their hopes whenever he turns up. When all of this proves to be a façade and it is revealed that his life is in even worse shape than theirs, the bleakness seems insurmountable. At one point in the play Hickey has urged the lot to try to go forth into the world. We know that those who do will quickly be back in the bar.
The large cast is composed of excellent actors who stake out their personalities, whether they are a pimp bartender and his hookers, or the more philosophical whose dreams of a better society have long been shattered. Especially effective are David Morse as the tortured Larry Slade and Colm Meaney as the ironically named Harry Hope, for whom a birthday party is thrown, and who by the time Hickey gives his confession is so stepped in whisky that he doesn’t give a damn about listening to it all.
Santo Loquasto’s barroom is shown from different angles to highlight individual scenes. Ann Roth, who has designed some gorgeous costumes in her career, here excels with being downbeat, even to the point of a clumsy-fitting suit for Hickey, and the floozy outfits for the hookers.
There are those who shun a play of this length, and don’t want to wallow in O’Neill’s depressed view of society. But this is one of O’Neill’s major works, and it is rewarding to see it performed anew, especially with Washington making his bid to make the renowned role his own. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 9, 2018.