A Touch of the Poet
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
December 15, 2005
A Touch of the Poet was meant to be part of an eleven-play cycle, tracing the history of one American family over the course of 175 years. But Eugene O’Neill only completed one of the plays, which was never produced in his lifetime. So it’s difficult to know what to make of A Touch of the Poet on its own terms, without knowing how it might have fit into the larger cycle, or even whether O’Neill, seeing it on its feet, might have been inspired to go back and do some rewriting. And the Roundabout Theatre’s current production can’t quite overcome the flaws in the script, especially in the exposition-heavy first act—though there are plenty of pleasures to be found in even second-rate O’Neill, especially when beautifully acted.
Much of this exposition comes in the very first scene, where Mickey Maloy, a bartender in an early 19th century Boston tavern, quizzes Jamie Cregan, a down-on-his-luck Irish veteran, for information about Maloy’s boss, Cornelius ("Con") Melody, formerly Cregan’s commanding officer in Spain. Melody now owns this tavern, where his long-suffering wife, Nora, does all the cooking and cleaning and scrimping and saving; his daughter, Sara, serves bitterly as a waitress; and Melody himself, feeling too grand to tend bar, spends most of his time drinking, tending to his thoroughbred horse, and reminiscing about his glory days in the army. Resident in the hotel—but never seen on stage, which also generates much exposition—is Simon Harford, the ailing son of an upper-class Boston family, with whom Sara is in love, and much of the play—which takes place in a single day—revolves around this budding romance. Nora, still desperately in love with Con despite his constant mistreatment of her, wants to see Sara love someone the same way; Con vacillates between seeing the match as perfectly suited and scathingly criticizing Sara as a peasant who couldn’t possibly be worthy of a gentleman’s son. Simon’s mother, Deborah Harford, appears in the afternoon to see her sick son and appraise Sara, and the Harford family lawyer turns up in the evening to bribe the entire Melody clan to move away from the Boston area.
Since it’s a Eugene O’Neill play, you can probably predict that it doesn’t end well. Con, incensed by the attempted bribery, sets off for Boston to avenge the slight to his honor, and returns having received a crack on the head that leads to a rude awakening about his actual position in the world. His wife and daughter are left not quite sure whether to mourn Con’s broken spirit or to rejoice that he’s finally recognized how hard his illusions have made their life. The last scene of the play, taken on its own, is heartbreaking, but it’s too little too late to redeem Melody. One of the problems with the script is that, having watched this destructive drunk manipulate, insult, and bully these two women for two hours, I wanted his awakening to come from a more insightful place than a head injury.
But flawed O’Neill is still richer than the best work of many a playwright. Nora Melody, as played by the beautifully subtle Irish actress Dearbhla Molloy, is a heartbreaking portrait of a woman who knows all too well the sacrifices she’s made for love, and has chosen not to be bitter about it. The scene between Sara Melody and Deborah Harford is both a very civilized catfight between a young lover and her would-rather-not-be mother-in-law and an incisive commentary on class and gender in post-revolutionary America. And Kathryn Meisle is riveting as Deborah; she turns a one-scene character who is in some sense the villain of the piece into a poignant and sympathetic mother, who both wants her son to have a freedom she’s never been allowed and knows the cost of that freedom, for him and for her.
Gabriel Byrne has a challenging role—he’s playing a scenery-chewer, a bombastic drunk who prides himself on being larger than life, and it’s a difficult balance to play that kind of role without going over the top. Byrne cuts the scenery-chewing by giving Con’s sarcasm a truly vicious edge, and then turns it on himself to energize that aforementioned last-act conversion. Byrne even comes awfully close to making us understand Con’s good side—that spark of something that makes a good woman love him without stinting, that made men follow him into battle—and I think his ultimate failure at doing so is O’Neill’s more than Byrne’s. The story doesn’t make sense without that side to Con, but it’s not really written into the play.
Emily Bergl, as Sara, is less successful at finding the shadings that make sense of her character. She is touching as the young girl radiant with first love, but seems to play only one note—bitterness—in her dealings with her father, even when her lines call for her to grudgingly admit her affection for or even identification with him.
Doug Hughes’s direction feels competent but uninspired. The strongest actors shine, but those in the smaller roles seem a bit tentative. The staging is oddly two-dimensional, given the size and depth of the stage, and the blocking often seems stifled by an excess of tables and chairs on Santo Loquasto’s set.
A Touch of the Poet may ultimately be more of a historical artifact than a major addition to the O’Neill canon—which makes it interesting, if not always entirely satisfying.