Oscar winner Denzel Washington stars as the charismatic Hickey in Eugene...

Oscar winner Denzel Washington stars as the charismatic Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" on Broadway. Credit: Julieta Cervantes

WHAT “The Iceman Cometh”

WHERE Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

INFO From $79; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Denzel Washington’s not the only reason to see this O’Neill classic.

You have to wonder what might possess a producer to stage yet another revival of Eugene O’Neill's dark and depressing "The Iceman Cometh." Maybe Denzel Washington had expressed an interest in taking on one of the most challenging roles American theater has to offer?

Judging from the reaction the Oscar and Tony Award winner got when he made his entrance nearly an hour into the play at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, that’s reason enough. Clearly, this audience would have come to hear him read from the phone book.

But there are other good reasons to see George C. Wolfe's thoughtful staging of what many consider O'Neill's masterwork, a play that demands much from its audience in that it typically runs nearly five hours. Wolfe brings this one in at just under four without significant detriment or noticeable trims. There's still plenty of time to marvel at the fine cast, a solid group of actors who are the sad denizens of a seedy bar/flophouse on Manhattan's West Side. The men and women who gather in Harry's backroom to drink away their troubles are a pitiful bunch — hookers and pimps, an out-of-work lawyer, a British ex-infantryman and a couple of former anarchists.  

If you care to quantify the misery, Larry Slade, the anarchist who has given up on the cause, seems the most despondent and angry, and he's played with serious intensity by David Morse. Colm Meaney captures the despair of bar owner Harry Hope, portraying a wreck of a man, unable to leave the premises 20 years after the death of his wife. They join the others waiting in varying degrees of drunken stupor for the arrival of Hickey (Washington), the traveling salesman who shows up a couple of times a year to buy everyone a drink (or three) and regale them with stories from the road.

But it's a different Hickey on this night — he's sober, for one thing, and eager to pass on the wisdom that seems to have come from nowhere to salve his soul. Washington gives us a conflicted Hickey, a jovial, life-of-the party guy one minute, a deeply troubled man questioning his choices the next. These are the contradictions of a man who clearly doesn't believe everything coming out of his mouth, which makes his final, confessional monologue all the more chilling. 

It is difficult to overcome the hopelessness that pervades almost every moment of "Iceman." So best to simply relish the power of a great play and the actors — all the actors — who tell the story.

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