After a Decade, David Morse Has Cometh Back to Broadway
Morse plays Larry Slade opposite Denzel Washington in this Eugene O'Neill classic.
It's been a decade since David Morse was last seen on Broadway — as the hulking Sharky in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer — and five years since his last New York stage appearance altogether (in Steven Levenson's The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin). But now Morse, a Drama Desk, Lortel, and Obie winner for How I Learned to Drive, is back to his stage roots as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh.
George C. Wolfe's production at the Jacobs Theatre is a reunion of sorts for Morse, who's starring opposite an old colleague from way back in the day, Denzel Washington. They were doctors together once at St. Eligius Hospital in St. Elsewhere, and now they're going head to head for four hours in Eugene O'Neill's magnum opus as a pair of warring barflies with big, conflicting ideas about happiness and pipe dreams.
But now Morse, who received 2018 Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Award nominations for his performance, is back where he wants to be — on stage — and he couldn't be happier.
Were you looking for a play when The Iceman Cometh came into your life?
I was getting to the point where I said to my wife, "I don't think I'll ever be in New York in a play again." I don't know if this is a coincidence or not, but there's a play that just opened at the Young Vic in London called The Inheritance. I did a reading of it last summer and they asked me to do it, but I couldn't because I'm on a couple of TV series. But at the same time, I got asked to do this and I'm very grateful that it worked out, because it's pretty terrific.
What was your first exposure to the play itself?
I had seen it in 1985 on Broadway where Donald Moffat played my role. He really stuck out to me. And then I saw the Kevin Spacey production. I had also done a reading of the play, full and uncut, at the Shubert Theatre in Boston in 2006, where I played Hickey. As soon as I made my entrance, my reading glasses broke and I had to do the next four-and-a-half hours with my glasses balanced on my nose. How people sat through a staged reading of The Iceman Cometh…[laughs]
Your character, Larry Slade, is a former anarchist who is done with the world. Tell me about your way into the role.
One of the things that all actors do is look for the big moment, and when I read it, I didn't see it. But when I read it a second time, I saw the cumulative experience of it. Larry is a syndicalist-anarchist, and the syndicalist-anarchists believe that all power comes from the people up, not from some authority down. We are the initiators of power and have the right to say what we want or don't want. Larry Slade runs away from that. He denies he's part of that. And all the feelings he had get transferred onto the people in the bar. He becomes the protector of these people, reluctantly, when Hickey comes in and starts messing with it.
Is working with Denzel Washington in this medium different than when you first worked together on TV three decades ago?
Of course. We were different actors then. But we were also in a big ensemble and he was not "the star." Now, we're part of a big ensemble and he's Denzel Washington doing the big, flashy role. He's had the experience of being a movie star for a long time now, but he tries to put that aside and do the work. In that sense, it's not so different.
When we got to the theater, he called a circle at the end of rehearsal each day, before we did the show that night, where we all held hands and talked. Everybody got to say something. And that helped the group. There was a real — I don't want to get too mushy with this — but we made a real commitment to each other. It's not just our individual efforts.
Are you having fun?
It sounds perverse because the play is so long, but it would be hard not to have fun with these people and this material, and just giving yourself over to Eugene O'Neill's world. It's amazing how much humor there is all the way through. Not that I get a lot of it. [laughs]