Theater Review

A Long Play's Journey Into Sodden Self-Delusion

From left, Larry Slade (Scott Bailey), Hickey (Michael Kharfen), Hugo Kalmar (Jack Seeley) and Don Parritt (Kevin Walker) in
From left, Larry Slade (Scott Bailey), Hickey (Michael Kharfen), Hugo Kalmar (Jack Seeley) and Don Parritt (Kevin Walker) in "The Iceman Cometh," staged by the Elden Street Players. (By Richard Downer)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, February 1, 2007

You know it's been a really long play when audience members linger after it's over, blinking in the lobby lights like freed hostages, exchanging phone numbers and planning reunions.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" is a very long play. Even with almost an hour excised by the Elden Street Players for their straightforward production, it still runs about four hours.

Life in the backroom at Harry Hope's bar in 1912 is a slow-motion daydream. The denizens are a collection of losers, prostitutes, swindlers and schemers.

They wallow in self-delusion, anesthetized by alcohol. Their lives might have been wasted or ruined, but each nurtures the fantasy that resurrection is within reach. All it will take is a few simple deeds. Maybe tomorrow.

They're waiting for Theodore "Hickey" Hickman (Michael Kharfen) to make his regular appearance. Hickey is popular, a salesman who stops in for a bender after completing his circuit several times a year.

This time is different, though. He's sober and intent on puncturing the self-delusion that, in O'Neill's view, is keeping the barflies from true peace. But Hickey, too, is grasping at a fantasy that ultimately betrays him.

We don't meet Hickey for 70 minutes, giving O'Neill time to introduce 15 other characters, though the same thematic effect could be achieved with five or six. Repetitive conversations could also be streamlined. As it is, the darkness of the material and its excessive length conspire to keep this rarely staged play from audiences. That's unfortunate because O'Neill's depiction of truth as a caustic agent that kills even as it redeems is fascinating and provocative.

Still, many theater aficionados consider this the greatest play by one of the greatest playwrights. They might bridle at so much focus on its length, but the marathon nature of the play is a significant factor of the experience.

An annoyed O'Neill supposedly threatened to make it even longer than five hours if people kept complaining when it stormed Broadway in 1956 with Jason Robards. (A 1946 version failed to generate much excitement.) When Robards starred in a magnificent, full-length 1985 revival at the Kennedy Center, ushers looked the other way as patrons smuggled forbidden food into the Eisenhower Theater. A little noshing is less distracting than people fainting from hunger.

Director Angie Anderson isn't fazed by the clock and lets the tale unfold slowly and gently. The opening scene is a breathing still-life portrait of spiritual despair, which Anderson makes sure we thoroughly feel before the story progresses. Anderson keeps everything grounded in realism, even though O'Neill allows for a slightly surreal filter through which to experience life at Harry's. The gritty reality is enhanced by Tod Kerr's highly atmospheric set, the squalid details accurate down to the dusty plaster oozed between the slats of the walls.

Kharfen is an accomplished actor who brings intensity to his scenes and energy that crackles. His Hickey simultaneously commands compassion and condemnation, and he shakes the losers out of their daze.

This is an ensemble piece of 18 with no weak performances. Standouts include Scott Bailey as Larry Slade, a former anarchist who pretends to have cast off his ideals to await death. Bailey and Kharfen face off like saloon gunslingers as Hickey clinically dissects Slade's delusions. Jack Seeley portrays Hugo Kalmar, who is usually unconscious but occasionally emerges to denounce everyone and moan for a drink. Seeley makes the most of those concentrated moments, skillfully demonstrating how razor-thin the line is between laughter and tears. Al Fetske is affecting as gruff Harry, the bar owner, who has been afraid to leave the confines of his establishment for 20 years.

It is up to Kharfen to keep the audience focused and interested, particularly as he wends his way through some extremely long monologues. He is up to the task, keeping 95 percent of the audience riveted until after midnight on opening night, through to O'Neill's bitter but illuminating end.

"The Iceman Cometh" continues through Feb. 17, performed by the Elden Street Players at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. Feb. 11. For reservations, call 703-481-5930. For information, visit

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