While Denzel Washington won’t call The Iceman Cometh a “homecoming,” he did get his start as an actor with one of its playwright’s works. “I started my career with Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in college,” Washington says. “He’s one of the greats of our time, of all time. It’s a great challenge and a great opportunity.”
Washington is headlining the revival of O’Neill’s barroom drama, which opens April 26 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, making it the final entry of the 2017-18 Broadway season. Producer Scott Rudin, with whom Washington worked on Fences and A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, brought him “scores of plays” to choose from, and Washington selected Iceman. “It actually came down to this and Coriolanus,” he says. “We’re talking about maybe Coriolanus down the line.”
Washington plays Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, a traveling salesman who makes regular visits to a downtown New York City bar where a group of drunks while away the day and mourn the loss of their pipe dreams. The play premiered on Broadway in 1947 with James Barton as Hickey, and the George C. Wolfe-directed production marks its fourth revival. A recent New York production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starred Nathan Lane as Hickey, while other performers who have taken on the role have included James Earl Jones, Jason Robards and Kevin Spacey.
“It’s really dealing with the question, what is hope?” Wolfe explains of the play’s relevance. “How does this symphony of hope, despair, love, loss, and dreams dance together, and what proportion keeps you sane, and what proportion can destroy you? That seems to be what the play is about. It also seems to be what this world is about. We’re asking all those questions right now. A lot of the illusions have been stripped from all of us.”
O’Neill wrote the play as a sort of respite from writing one of his other dark epics, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and while Iceman — which generally runs about four-and-a-half hours without cuts — could hardly be described as jovial, Wolfe is digging into some of the funnier aspects of the play.
“Underneath O’Neill, there’s this raw humor that is just built into the material, and it’s like, what do you grab a hold of in order to survive?” says the director.
The actors are also leaning into the humanity and humor of their characters. Colm Meaney, who plays Harry Hope, says while the bar owner is not the most upstanding character, he admires the man’s caring nature.
“He does have great resilience, and while he does delude himself occasionally about what life is about and what’s going on, he’s actually quite generous and caring about the people who hang out in his bar,” Meaney says. “So, that’s a very positive aspect. He won’t see anybody stuck, and he tries to help people along.”
David Morse, who plays the jaded Larry Slade, initially was unsure whether he wanted to jump on board with the play. Instead of focusing on the more depressing aspects, he’s looking to how his character takes care of other people.
“He just felt so tortured from beginning to end. He had a nice little beginning, and then, look out, he kind of gets hammered,” says Morse. “But, as I started doing it, I started realizing really what’s at the core of this man and his real love for these men, in particular, and the women in the play. He left a world where he was really hurt, and he was trying to remove himself from the world, but the world he’s come to has just completely drawn him in, and I just love that about him.”
The characters gripe and moan about their situations while debating the sociopolitical topics of the day, many of which are still relevant to today’s headlines. Tammy Blanchard, who plays Cora, thinks the theatergoing experience can be cathartic for audience members, as many of the topics are discussed more candidly than they would be in the current landscape.
“Everyone’s so afraid to be who they really are,” she says. “Everyone wants to fix each other. They wanna fix racism, they wanna fix sexism, they wanna fix alcoholism, drug addiction, and everyone’s trying to do the right thing. This is an opportunity for audiences to come in and just to hear everything they’re probably thinking inside. It’s hysterical because you can’t say these things anymore that are being said onstage right now. You can’t make these remarks about other people without getting hanged. So, it’s a situation where people come and they free themselves up for a little bit.”