The full text of “The Iceman Cometh,” Eugene O’Neill’s profound behemoth of a play, can run nearly five hours, if you factor in three intermissions. A divine tragicomedy about the denizens of a flophouse bar in 1912 New York, the play, first performed in 1946, asks much of anyone who takes it on.
The 1985 revival at the Kennedy Center, directed by José Quintero and starring Jason Robards, was life-altering — five hours that you happily offered up to the theater gods. It moved to Broadway.
Quotidian Theatre Company’s abridged three-hour production may not be a life-changer, but it is engaging and colorful. When a small company, even one that specializes in text-heavy plays, wrestles with an eccentric masterwork such as this, colorful and engaging are worthy outcomes.
Director Michael Avolio has trimmed roughly an hour-plus out of O’Neill’s text, but the narrative still flows and feels of a piece. He has also molded an 18-member cast with varying levels of experience into a responsive ensemble. With a few exceptions, they mine the play’s emotions, speak its sometimes archaic, poetry-tinged language and shake out the irony and laughter in its characters’ wasted lives. Avolio has a good eye for painting stage pictures, too — still-life tableaux to let a moment sink in. He also designed the set (with some help from O’Neill’s famously detailed stage directions).
Harry Hope’s dive bar has dreary, dun-colored walls and a black-and-white tile floor dotted with tables and chairs. There’s an actual stand-up bar at the back, but Harry’s clientele can’t belly up to it. They take their rotgut sitting down, then pass out, heads smacked on tables. Lighting designer Don Slater does a delicate job of setting the dank tone of the joint.
The cast features a number of standout turns. Ted Schneider as alcoholic, grief-addled bar owner Harry Hope and Frank Vince as his combative barman Rocky Pioggi offer particularly savory portrayals. Steve Beall provides an anchor for the show as the philosophical drunk, Larry Slade. Rarely leaving his corner chair, Slade explains the place and its flock to an anxious new arrival, Don Parritt, played with convincing nerviness by Chris Stinson. Manolo Santalla does justice to Hugo Kalmar, a onetime radical firebrand who now and then awakes to shout a slogan. Frank Britton, in a natty checkered suit (period costumes are well done by Stephanie Mumford), plays Joe Mott, the lone African American in the crowd. Britton laces Mott’s braggadocio with a wounded spirit as he fends off racist barbs. Louis Pangaro cuts a droll figure as Cecil “the Captain” Lewis, a tut-tutting British Boer War veteran.
The Iceman of the title is Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Steve LaRocque). Always the life of the party, Hickey’s the traveling salesman with the best stories. He has sent word that he’s on his way with plans to “save” everyone in Harry’s bar. Slade senses doom in those words. And sure enough, when Hickey finally arrives, well into Act One, he’s cold sober, secretive and determined to make everyone, every hooker and down-on-his-luck bum, face up to the hollowness of their “pipe dreams.”
Hickey stands at the play’s dark center, and the portrayal by LaRocque needs more electromagnetism to give that darkness a dramatic charge. LaRocque conjures the character’s intelligence and inner bleakness, but he needs more sly charm. With a Hickey who doesn’t quite set the stage ablaze, Quotidian’s production works, but in a muted way. Although it holds our attention easily, it doesn’t reach into our souls and give them a shake.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Michael Avolio. With Matt Boliek, Ken Lechter, John Decker, Danny Brooks, Brandon Mitchell, Carolyn Kashner, Genevieve James, Tiffany Garfinkle, Christian Sullivan and Brian McDermott.
Sound design, Ed Moser. Tickets: $25 to $30. About three hours, including one intermission. Presented by Quotidian Theatre Company through Nov. 24 at the Writer’s Center,
4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Visit www.quotidiantheatre.org or call
1-800-838-3006, ext. 1.