Eugene O'Neill lived a strange and somewhat sad life during the first half of the 20th century, and despite the playwright being exceptionally lauded for his written works (he was the first American ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature), O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, running at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, is no less strange and sad than its author's reality.
Set entirely in Harry Hope's seedy New York City saloon on the first floor below his boarding house, the play includes an enormous cast of 18 odd and pathetically alcohol-motivated characters, several of whom have connections as former members of an anarchist movement. A couple of other characters know each other as veterans of opposing sides of the obscure Second Boer War (fought between the British and two Boer republics in South Africa). There's a bartender who moonlights as a pimp to three prostitutes who prefer to be called "tarts," and there are a few other once-successful men who have fallen into daydreaming about their former halcyon lives while downing bottle after bottle of whatever form of unidentified liquor Harry Hope's saloon serves out of ceramic pitchers.
The story is esoteric at best, revolving around the arrival of the young Don Parritt, son of the jailed anarchist leader Rosa Parritt. Don comes in search of one-time anarchist Larry Slade, who wants nothing to do with Don, who may or may not be Larry's son and may or may not be responsible for his mother's imprisonment. The characters all anxiously await the arrival of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, a hardware salesman, who throws his money around and showers the motley crew with high-quality champagne and gifts in honor of Harry's birthday. As the story unwinds over an achingly long three-and-a-half hours, we learn that Hickey has murdered his wife out of his own guilt over his cheating and her constant forgiveness. Similarly, Don's guilt over his mother's incarceration and his sense of inadequacy and poor self-esteem (undoubtedly driven forward by Larry's refusal to accept him) lead him to commit suicide by jumping from the fire escape.
A real uplifting story, in short.
The acting is decent. Tony Colavito is to be commended for his command of the huge and challenging role of Hickey, which includes a very lengthy monologue, as is Mark Scharf for his moody, emotional Larry Slade. Frank Vince as Rocky Pioggi, the bartender, provides some of the only comic relief by joyously imitating his "tarts" with a thick New York accent. William Walker does a great job with the role of Joe Mott, ex-proprietor of a black gambling house, equally embracing and scorning his position as the only black man among all this "white trash," as he puts it. And the three ladies of the evening-Anne Shoemaker, Deirdre McAllister and Whitney St. Ours-are lovely to watch as they flirt with the men and keep them in check. Dan Collins, who reviews for Broadway World.com, is also among the cast members.
But the play is tedious, extraordinarily long and redundant. At times, it's painfully slow-and several people in the front row, even, are left to nod off. There's generally too much yelling (even given the fact that all the characters are constantly drunk), not nearly enough action for a modern audience and much too much dialogue with obscure references and out-of-reach vocabulary. Four acts and a single, 15-minute intermission are too much to ask of theatergoers, especially with such heavy, abstract material. If the Iceman cometh, he's taking much too long.
The performance leaves the audience as depressed as the characters and most likely wanting to rush home to drown its sorrows. We all need a dose of reality now and then (no one wants all fluff all the time), but given today's economic and social climates, by taking on O'Neill's intense, despairing play, the Fells Point Corner Theatre may be asking just a bit too much of Baltimore audiences.
The Iceman Cometh runs Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 12 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. in Baltimore. Its next production, Coastal Disturbances, opens Feb. 17. For more information, visit www.fpct.org.
Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.