Category: Archive

Deluded dreams

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

As his career progressed, the late Jason Robards Jr. was more and more often referred to as American theater’s preeminent interpreter of the flawed heroes in the plays of Eugene O’Neill.
Now, following up an outstanding rendition of James Tyrone Jr. in the playwright’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” three years ago, with a strong performance in the challenging role of Cornelius Melody in O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet,” Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne is making a strong bid to follow Robards as the great Irish-American dramatist’s main man.
O’Neill wrote “A Touch of the Poet” in 1942, a year after “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and a year before “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and the one-act “Hughie.”
The playwright died on Nov. 27, 1953, without seeing any of these plays, or “More Stately Mansions,” which he never fully finished, produced onstage.
“A Touch of the Poet” debuted on Oct. 2, 1958, at the original Helen Hayes Theater, now demolished, where “Long Day’s Journey” had triumphed just two years earlier.
The British star, Eric Portman, played opposite actress Hayes, as Melody’s wife, Nora, and Kim Stanley, as his daughter, Sara.
In the near half-century since its first New York production, “A Touch of the Poet” has had just one major revival, with Robards starring, and Geraldine Fitzgerald as the long-suffering Nora.
Playwright Elmer Rice once observed that, in his view, every dramatist had one single, dominant idea to which he returned again and again in his work.
In Eugene O’Neill’s case, it was very probably the belief that, in order to survive, man must not be separated from the dreams on which his life is structured.
This motion arguably obsessed O’Neill in the final years of his writing life, because it is toweringly present in the three major plays he wrote between 1939 and 1942, “The Iceman Cometh,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “A Touch of the Poet.”
Like the vagrants and layabouts hiding out in Barry Hope’s shabby saloon in “Iceman” and the doomed Tyrone family patriarch in “Long Day’s Journey,” Cornelius Melody is sustained by dreams, illusions and memories.
“Poet” is set in what the Roundabout production specifies as “the dining room of Melody’s Tavern, a few miles from Boston,” a location more frequently described as being on the Boston Post Road. The play’s action, what there is of it, takes place on a single day, July 27, 1828, starting at 9 a.m. and ending in deepest night.
The day is of particular significance to Melody because it is the 19th anniversary of what he calls the Battle of Talavera, but which was actually an undecisive skirmish in the Peninsular War. Here, in 1809, in the agricultural town of Talavera de la Reina, in the province of Toledo in Central Spain, English and Spanish forces, under Wellington, engaged the French, commanded by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon.
The encounter had no significant results, but, in the deluded mind of Cornelius Melody, it was a towering event.
He was, or claimed to have been, a major in the British army fighting on the Iberian Peninsula, and, what’s more, he recalls being praised by Wellington himself. Melody claims to have been born in an Irish castle, but this detail, like virtually everything else in the story of his life, is open to dispute.
What is true is that he married Nora, a loving woman of humble origin, and fathered a strong-willed daughter, Sara.
Having at some point relocated to Massachusetts and founded a modest roadside tavern over which he rules, and in which he has reduced the women in his life to the position of slaveys, the loyal Nora completely subjugated, and the spirited Sara somewhat less so.
The character in “A Touch of the Poet” who knows most of the truth about Melody, even more than Nora, is very probably Jamie Cregan who, as a corporal, shared some part of his friend’s military career. Cregan is more or less tolerated around Melody’s Tavern, although his “host” seldom misses an opportunity to remind him of the difference in the ranks they held in the English army.
Like Nora, Cregan knows, or at the very least intuits, the fact that Cornelius Melody’s very life depends on the maintenance of the self-deceit out of which he has cobbled his existence in America.
Director Doug Hughes has done a solid job of getting O’Neill’s excessively loquacious play on its feet and more or less in motion. The work’s numbing talkiness is probably one of the reasons it took 16 years for it to be given a life onstage.
Casting is everything in a play this daunting, and Hughes, whose fine production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” will undergo major cast changes in a few weeks, has been fortunate with “A Touch of the Poet.”
The availability of Gabriel Byrne is, of course, the primary reason that it became possible to revive the play. As well-cast as he’s ever been, certainly since Dan Sullivan’s production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” even the display cards showing the actor in the character’s scarlet military uniform jacket, a decidedly baleful expression in his eye, suggest the strength and solidity of the work he’s doing in O’Neill’s bitterly melancholic drama.
He’s every inch the prideful, self-defeating fabulist, and in the play’s final scenes, when he comes apart before our eyes, he soars.
Matching him line for line and thrust for thrust is Dublin star Dearbhla Molloy, last seen on a New York State in director John Crowley’s Roundabout production of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock.”
As staunch as she is self-effacing, Molloy’s Nora anchors the staging to the point that it’s possible not to “see” her working around the portions of the tavern we are not shown. This versatile, inventive actress has a great, wordless moment toward the end of the play in which, finally alone, she allows herself to exhibit the fatigue and pain she feels as she moves around the place, extinguishing candles and tamping the room down for what she thinks, wrongly, will be a quiet night.
Emily Bergl, as the rebellious, self-possessed Sara, in love with the ailing young aristocrat recuperating in one of the tavern’s upstairs rooms, is convincing as a blend of the traits demonstrated by both her parents, with a touch of personal willfulness added for good measure.
As Mrs. Henry Harford, the boy’s lofty mother, Kathryn Meisle makes the most of her own bravura scene, confronting Melody and ultimately making a fool of him in his own small world.
The name “Harford,” with only slight variations, turns up elsewhere in the O’Neill canon, including “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” To O’Neill it symbolized established, moneyed American snobbery.
In the early 1930s, the playwright began writing an 11-play cycle dealing with the story of an American family. The name he ultimately gave to the projected series was “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed.” The only segment O’Neill completed to his satisfaction was “A Touch of the Poet.”
The set design by the reliable Santo Loquasto, with its vast wood paneling, its plank floor and its enormous flagstone hearth, succeeds at least partially in coping with the great breadth of the Studio 54 stage.
The physical realities of the playing area force the characters of “A Touch of the Poet,’ and probably every non-musical venture ever booked into the space, to appear to be addressing one another at a distance great enough to require elevated vocal levels. In other words, intimacy is decidedly at a premium, as was definitely the case with Studio 54’s previous Roundabout production, Edward Hall’s disappointing revival of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Doug Hughes’s approach too “A Touch of the Poet” has included a rather peculiar opening moment.
Once the audience has settled into its seats and the lights on the vast, curtainless Studio 54 stage begin to rise, a roughly-dressed figure slowly emerges from the set’s shadowy depths and takes a seat alongside that enormous fireplace.
In the rising light, it becomes clear that he is carrying a singular-looking object, rather resembling a variant on a conventional set of bagpipes. The mysterious stranger is, it turns out, a musician, David Power, and the instrument with him is a set of uilleann pipes, which, once comfortably seated, he begins to play.
Anyone in the audience who hadn’t taken the time to ascertain the play’s setting might be forgiven for thinking they were about to attend a tale played out not in Massachusetts at all, but in rural Ireland.

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