With his buoyant air of all-American optimism and innate decency, Denzel Washington is well cast (by helmer George C. Wolfe) as Hickey, the long-awaited bearer of false hope, comforting lies, and unlimited free booze to the washed-up losers who patronize Harry Hope’s no-hope saloon. When the thesp sweeps down the aisle and onto the stage wearing a snazzy suit and a 100-watt smile, the whole theater warms up.
The huge ensemble cast (19 strong) presents a cross-section of some of the best character actors in the business. At center stage is the saloon keeper Harry Hope, played with worn-out Irish dignity and a bit of a warm brogue by Colm Meaney, who generously treats his bedraggled patrons to free drinks and lets them sleep it off in their chairs. (As one drinker notes, it’s living hell to crawl upstairs into a cold and lonely bed.)
It’s 1912 in New York City, a hard place to survive when you’re down and out. But this shabby neighborhood bar is a safe refuge from the bustling, terrifying street life. Santo Loquasto has designed the room with a dusty, but well-stocked bar that has seen better days. There’s some nice woodwork over the bar, but it’s obviously coated in many years’ worth of nicotine stain. The rest of the furnishings are spare and decidedly spartan — hard wooden tables and chairs and not a cushion in sight. As for the stairs leading upstairs to the furnished rooms, they look as if they turn on themselves at the landing and lead straight down to hell. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have done a remarkable job with the stygian lighting design, casting this depressing mausoleum in every shade of black, brown, and grey.
Here, everybody’s “pipedreams,” as O’Neill frequently reminds us, are accepted as gospel truth and never questioned. Harry himself can nurture the fantasy of sobering up and taking a walk around the neighborhood, greeting old friends just like he did in the grand old days before he was kicked off the police force.
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Jimmy Tomorrow (Reg Rogers, Mr. Dependable) can kid himself that he’ll shape up and get his old job back at the newspaper. Joe Mott (Michael Potts, whose pipedream has a hint of pain) can fantasize about re-opening his old gambling house. Pat McGloin and Ed Mosher (Jack McGee and Bill Irwin, true knights of the barroom floor) can pretend they can go back to the jobs they lost at the circus. And hookers Margie and Pearl (Nina Grollman and Carolyn Braver, nicely costumed by Ann Roth) can laugh and flirt with Chuck the bartender (Danny Mastrogiorgio, on top of this) without ever having to acknowledge that he’s their pimp.
There’s no place for fantasy, though, in Larry Slade’s life. As played with a cutting edge by David Morse, Larry is the barroom philosopher who is never quite as drunk or as incoherent as all the other bums. He’s a haunted man with faraway eyes in Morse’s assured performance, a man who can’t forget (or forgive himself for) his past as an anarchic socialist who severed his deep roots in the movement. An annoying kid named Don Parritt (Austin Butler, annoying) tracks Larry down to confess his own weighty sins.
Helmer George C. Wolfe has trimmed the play to a reasonable length (it now runs just under 4 hours) without losing the nuances in the various life histories of the boys in the barroom. But this is still a long play with a lot of moving parts. The first act, in which all the characters are introduced and roughly defined, is the most attenuated. Everyone lightens up – a bit too much, actually – in the second act, which shoots for comedy. But everything comes together in the third act, which spells Drama with a capital D. The third act is where Hickey divests himself of his own pipedream, ending the play with a gasp-inducing revelation. In a daring, but quite devastating piece of stage business, Washington turns his chair around and delivers Hickey’s long monologue directly facing the audience. You want to talk theater? Take that, people!