Large cast works well together in 'The Iceman Cometh'

The Fells Point Corner Theatre production ofEugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" is being staged in the right Baltimore neighborhood, because the entire play takes place in a bar. This is such a hard-drinking play that the word-drunk characters only shut up when they pass out, and even then they mumble in their sleep.

Let's just say that the personally troubled, Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize winning playwright knew his down-and-out characters well, because O'Neill is completely persuasive in depicting their boasting and their brawls. The equally persuasive local production makes a strong case for this rarely produced 1939 play.

"The Iceman Cometh" is an ambitious play for any theater to tackle. Set in a New York saloon in 1912, its 18 characters include busy bartenders, feisty veterans of the South African Boer War, embittered anarchists, a detective, a hardware salesman, a former circus employee and several bawdy female street walkers. Jammed together in this on-stage saloon, they all like to talk at the same time. This is one loud bar.

Boasting so many characters and their densely interwoven stories, the play needs plenty of time to sort everything out. You'll also need plenty of time to watch that sorting out, because "The Iceman Cometh" moves at a glacial pace through its 3-hour, 20-minute running time. You'll be older and wiser by the end of it.

Although O'Neill can be faulted for not pruning the stretches of redundant banter, there's no denying that the play owes its considerable dramatic impact to the slow accretion of character detail. When long-simmering conflicts finally explode late in the admittedly listless action, you'll be deeply affected by these outbursts.

If it takes awhile for things to reach a boiling point, it's in large part because much of the first act is spent awaiting the arrival of the main character, Theodore Hickman (Tony Colavito), known to everybody as Hickey. This hardware salesman has such an optimistic salesman personality that his mesmerizing stories and promises make him seem like a savior in the eyes of this depressed crowd.

The drunks tell stories about Hickey as they wait for him to show up. They're all gathered in the saloon owned by Harry Hope (Rodney Bonds), and most of them live in the upstairs rooms that Harry rents out. This place is one-stop shopping for misery.

To give just a sampling of the many unhappy people assembled here, Larry Slade (Mark Scharf) is a middle-aged political anarchist who has given up on trying to change Wall Street's capitalist habits; Don Parritt (David Shoemaker) is the son of a jailed anarchist mother, and he turns out to have reason for harboring such a guilty conscience; Joe Mott (William Walker) is the former proprietor of a gambling house, and his black skin makes every day a struggle for him in this otherwise all-white crowd; and Willie Oban (Ian Bonds) is a Harvard Law School graduate who passed the bar and now passes his time at this bar.

Considering the size of the cast, it's impressive that their performances mesh as well as they do. Although director Lynda McClary might want to encourage a few of the actors to tone down some of their mechanically over-the-top drunken behavior, such tipsy displays are understandable under the circumstances.

What really pulls the large acting company together is watching how their characters individually spar with Hickey within a claustrophobic bar from which there seemingly is no escape.

Colavito is so aggressively convincing as Hickey that he's actually rather frightening. When Hickey shouts, you listen.

"The Iceman Cometh" runs through Feb. 12 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. in Fells Point. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; there is also a Thursday performance on Feb. 9. Tickets are $17 Friday and Saturday, $15 Sunday, $10 Thursday. Call 410-276-7837 or go to

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