The Iceman Cometh
Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The curtain raises to reveal a dingy saloon tableau: An assortment of barflies, in various states of collapse, are lit in the chiaroscuro of a Dutch master painting, letting us know that for the next few hours, we’ll consider the beauty in the bleak lives of dese bums. Residents of a Greenwich Village bar in 1912, they first appear as motionless as arcade automatons before anyone has dropped a penny.

Then, one by one or in pairs, the anarchists, the retired officers still at war, the prostitutes and their pimps offer us hints of the wrong turns that led to this last-ditch watering hole. Today they are waiting for the annual return of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, a traveling salesman who can be counted on to buy a round and cheer them with oft-told stories, including the gag about catching his wife with the iceman. Only when he at last sweeps in does the company become fully animated, though they will soon be disappointed to learn that their pal is off the sauce and appears to have come to dash their improbable dreams of a future beyond the saloon doors. Let’s get this party started!

With seven hours of angels and five hours of wizards to take in on Broadway this season, can a case be made for four hours of end-of-the-line drunks? Yes, and a good one. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s frequently revived dark meditation on the life-sustaining merits of self-delusion, is in good hands with this latest creative team led by director George C. Wolfe. (That stunning tableau is thanks to lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; costumes are by Ann Roth and scenic design, Santo Loquasto.)

First on Broadway in 1946, the play is set in an earlier time when a O’Neill was a young and adrift alcoholic who surrounded himself with older, veteran drinkers at downtown saloons like Jimmy-the-Priest’s (on a block later razed to build the World Trade Towers) and the Golden Swan (now a small park bearing the name). Iceman Cometh was the comparatively lighter fare O’Neill tapped out on a break from writing the more intensely personal Long Day’s Journey into Night. Though not as autobiographical as that family play, Iceman is informed by O’Neill having been raised by a mother who was addicted to morphine from the time of his difficult birth, and by seeing his brother drink to suicide. He is by turns sentimental and brutal towards the thirsty characters here, including the one teenage outlier: He sets them up at a watering hole pointedly called Harry Hope’s.

Yes, the play is long and the dialogue often repetitive: Take a shot every time someone says “pipe dreams” and you’ll be as far gone as the worst of this lot. And yet it can be repetitive in the way music is, coming back to themes that the cast riffs on neatly under Wolfe’s orchestration. There are a lot of moving parts — 17 players on stage in some scenes. Each one’s inflated account of past glory and unlikely intentions (to find work, to marry, or merely to cross the street) is expressly his own, even if Hickey uses the same language (“pipe dreams!”) to deflate them all.

The ensemble cast — and it very much is, despite the lone name on the marquee, an ensemble — is stocked both with veteran performers and Broadway debuts, including a former Bronx firefighter enjoying a second career as an actor (Jack McGee, playing a corrupt former cop). Stage-and-film regular David Morse (who, alongside Denzel Washington, got an early break on TV’s St. Elsewhere) is a grounding presence as the resolute alcoholic Larry Slade, a foil for Hickey and for the bar’s tortured youngster (newcomer Austin Butler).

Among the many others worth noting: the always welcome Colm Meaney, who inhabits Harry Hope, the widowed publican who hasn’t left the place in years, and the magnetic Michael Potts (Book of Mormon) as Joe Mott, who rails against racist treatment the bar, yet can’t seem to get a foot out the door any more than agoraphobe Harry.

What will bring most theatergoers to Harry’s, of course, is that marquee name. Washington has spent a lot of time on the New York stage (most recently in Fences and A Raisin in the Sun) but his presence still feels like an event. Though the character doesn’t turn up until nearly an hour into the play, Hickey is an actor’s life-list role, one that makes the demands both of Macbeth and The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill. He’s a charming fast-talker, evangelizing for sobriety in a saloon, joking and smiling and all the while hiding a guilty, gnawing secret. When that secret is revealed, Washington’s Hickey proves a transfixing storyteller, a salesman who knows how to close. A-