"A Touch of the Poet" is that rare Eugene O'Neill play that ends happily - a muted happiness to be sure, but given the dour mood of most of O'Neill's work, that's pretty remarkable.
Director Doug Hughes has led a splendid cast, headed by Gabriel Byrne, in a revival that makes the seldom-revived "Poet" seem one of O'Neill's richest and most satisfying plays.
Byrne plays Con Melody, an Irish immigrant in early 19th-century Massachusetts. Like many O'Neill heroes, he is an alcoholic. Unlike many, his growing self-understanding does not lead to further self-destruction.
And like another Irish immigrant, James Tyrone, the father in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Melody is lost in the past. Tyrone relives his theatrical glories. Melody is still fixated on being commended by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Talavera (1809) in Spain.
Once a year - the day in 1828 that the play takes place - he takes out his uniform and relives that triumph in the shabby tavern his wife and daughter run for him.
During the course of the day, he lashes out at the women who allow him to nurture his illusions. He attempts to sabotage his daughter's future, but in an unexpected turnabout, Melody turns on himself, accepts reality and makes peace with his weary family.
Byrne does an astonishing job of conveying Melody's vainglory without sacrificing our sympathy for him. There's something pitiable in the way he struts about the stage imagining himself a nobleman.
Nor does Byrne flinch from showing us Melody's ugliness as he flails about in drunken impotence. But the final reconciliation with his daughter, powerfully played by Emily Bergl, is deeply touching.
Dearbhla Molloy, as his long-suffering wife, makes us believe her love and devotion to this fallen creature - a moving portrait of Irish resilience.
Kathryn Meisle has great elegance as a local gentlewoman, Daniel Stewart Sherman is strong as a bartender, and Byron Jennings is marvelous as Melody's rascally war buddy.
Santo Loquasto has designed the somber set and the costumes. My only quibble is that Melody's uniform is a little too spiffy for having endured the ravages of both war and time.
Otherwise, this is a revival to be treasured.
A wild flash of acting and we’re off to the races with a magnificent Gabriel Byrne very much in the saddle in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet,” which opened last night at Studio 54.
This vivid Roundabout Theatre revival, directed by Doug Hughes and designed by Santo Loquasto, is strongly touched up by the charismatic Byrne, an elegantly intense, Dublin-trained actor best known here for his movies.
O’Neill’s reputation as one of the 20th-century’s finest playwrights rests on just a fistful of timeless plays written towards the end of his life, all possessing a dauntless passionate power.
They seem hewn out with wild-eyed desperation from O’Neill’s own soul, with his characters clumsily daubed with his own blood. There is rough-cast grandeur here, and a violentlty dramatic voice like none other.
Yet that voice at times degenerates into an almost incomprehensible Irish-style doggerel—so you might feel as if you’re hearing “Hamlet” in Sanskrit.
The time is 1828, and Major Con Melody (Byrne)—who fought heroically with Wellington—is now an impoverished New England innkeeper. At odds both with his fellow, sycophantic Irish immigrants, whom he haughtily regards as peasants, and the Yankee heirarchy of nearby Boston, whom he despises as upstarts, he’s left alone with his pipe dreams and fantasies of the gentleman he almost was.
His wife (a marvelous Dervia Molloy, who reveals every aspect of the adoring, downtrodden Nora) and daughter (equally brilliant Emily Bergl, who brings out Sara’s pain, pride and ambition) are treated like servants.
But Con Melody’s pride eventually has its fall. The fine feathers of his British uniform abandoned, his accent reduced to the Irish brogue of his youth, the hubristic dreamer is forced—perhaps finally—to face facts.
Despite the rich possibilities of O’Neill’s Nora and Sara, the play really depends upon the actor playing Major Melody.
From his first posturing and preening, all given the shrewd distancing of an alcoholic glaze, through to his final, bloody and vainglorious defeat, Byrne never puts a note in the wrong place, or casts a glance in the wrong direction.
This is superb acting that represents Broadway at its rarely exalted best.
And then all at once there is fire.
The conflagration occurs midway through what until then has been at best a lukewarm revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Touch of the Poet." Much of the cast of the play, which opened last night at Studio 54 in a Roundabout Theater Company production, has appeared to be under the impression that this is a saggy comedy of manners, not a portrait of a family in hell. And the show's ideally cast star, Gabriel Byrne, playing one of O'Neill's self-dramatizing monster fathers, has barely shaken hands with the Olympian contradictions of his character, much less embraced them.
Yet as soon as the second half of Doug Hughes's production of this seldom-seen drama begins, you can sense the embers stirring within Mr. Byrne's Cornelius Melody, a grandly deluded Irish innkeeper in early-19th-century Massachusetts. Suddenly, traits that were only sketchily prefigured - Cornelius's raging pride and anger, his capacity to strike out at and cripple anyone who loves him - erupt into a volcanic display that jolts sleepy theatergoers into tense and wide-eyed wakefulness.
Since the moment marks an exciting turning point in Mr. Byrne's performance, though not in the production as a whole, let's dwell on it for a bit. The scene is a dinner party in celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Talavera, in which Cornelius (known all too fittingly as Con) served as a major in the British army.
His back to the audience, Con is dressed to thrill in his regimental uniform, inspiring whispers among his shabby, drunken dinner guests. "Ain't he a lunatic struttin' around like a play actor in his red coat," says one of them, "lyin' about his battles with the French."
It's an assessment with which the audience might have agreed up to this point. Whether rhapsodizing about his imagined aristocratic lineage and romantic conquests or collapsing into spasms of contrition, Mr. Byrne's alcohol-fueled Con has certainly come across as theatrical, but mostly in a ludicrous way. There has been little of the "formidable and impressive" air of "wrecked distinction" that O'Neill described.
But then Mr. Byrne turns around, and - lo and behold - he is Con in the ravaged, intimidating flesh. "I said less noise, you dogs," he barks. As he recites a verse from his beloved Byron about standing solitary among flatterers, Con reeks of a disgust that encompasses the whole world, including himself. And when he says to the men around him, "So may you go on fooling yourselves that I am fooled in you," he exudes a cracked tragic grandeur that approaches the Shakespearean.
Con the poseur has become the part he plays; so has Mr. Byrne the actor. And the audience has been allowed a rare glimpse of a thrilling process: an actor's taking hold of the reins of a runaway role and riding it for all it's worth. From that point on, Mr. Byrne remains in full gallop. Unfortunately, since no one else in this undercast, underdirected production begins to match his pace, the last line of the aforementioned verse from Byron takes on an unintended appropriateness: "This is to be alone - This, this is solitude!"
First produced on Broadway in 1958, five years after O'Neill's death, "A Touch of the Poet" is the only completed play of a projected cycle called "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed," which was to follow the corruption of the American soul by materialism over the centuries. ("More Stately Mansions," left by O'Neill in an inchoate form, is part of the same series.)
There are inklings in "A Touch of the Poet," which O'Neill began in the mid-1930's, of the far-reaching Faustian social bargain he intended to portray, mostly in reference to characters who are never seen onstage. But its fascination lies in its portrait of Con and in its savage family dynamics, which recall those of O'Neill's masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Con, like the mythomaniacal James Tyrone in "Journey," was inspired by O'Neill's father, the swashbuckling actor James O'Neill.
As in "Journey," interfamilial patterns of recrimination and apology, of the conflicting impulses to wound and to heal, assume operatic proportions as Con lashes out at his doggishly devoted, peasant wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), and his rebellious daughter, Sara (Emily Bergl). There are also echoes of "Journey" in the pipe-dream monologues and in dialogue that rings with sadistic thrust and parry. You are reminded that when it comes to inflicting pain in the plays of O'Neill, no one twists the knife more expertly than a blood relative.
Mr. Hughes's production, a much-tightened version of the original script, begins with atmospheric promise. Santo Loquasto's bleak, cavernous set is an appropriate battlefield for O'Neill's titans of domestic discontent. And the opening wail of uilleann pipes, played by David Power, which shifts into swirling music of military glory (by David Van Tieghem), beautifully establishes the central opposition of inner pain and public fantasy.
Yet when the cast members arrive, they seem dwarfed by their surroundings. As the bedraggled Nora, who has been crushed by her love for a man who treats her with contempt, Ms. Molloy seems exceptionally hale and sane, like one of Sean O'Casey's super-colleens. And in the small but crucial role of the deceptive, eccentric Deborah Hartford, the genteel Yankee mother of the man Sara hopes to marry, Kathryn Meisle has the crisply spoken archness of a matron in a Mayfair drawing room.
These incongruities would matter less if the production had a Sara capable of holding her own with Mr. Byrne's Con. A woman of fierce will, intelligence and disdain for Con's lordly affectations, Sara damningly resembles her father in ways she is loath to admit. Yet Ms. Bergl registers mostly as a pouty, petulant and thoroughly contemporary teenager, like one of the supporting babes from "The OC" She's pure no-calorie soda when what's called for is undiluted firewater.
This means that Mr. Byrne has no one to provoke the necessary spiked responses in Con's face-offs with the women in his life. That lack may explain the ungainly tentativeness of his early scenes, in which Con seesaws between barbed hauteur and abject apology. It is not a good sign that the audience chuckles comfortably, instead of uneasily, at each shift in Con's mood.
Mr. Byrne is evidently taking his cue too literally from the script's description of his character: "One soon feels that he is overplaying a role that has become more real than his real self to him." From the beginning, he seems more at ease with the men in the cast, who notably include Byron Jennings (as an old army buddy) and Daniel Stewart Sherman (as the tavern's bartender). When the play moves from exposition to action, after the intermission, Mr. Byrne comes into his own, hitting the notes of agony and ecstatic illusion he sounded so penetratingly in the Broadway revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in 2000.
As enacted by Mr. Byrne, Con's systematic humiliation of Sara as he discusses her matrimonial prospects is so scorching that you feel relieved that you are not in his line of vision. And Con's climactic metamorphosis into the man behind the aristocrat's pose is embodied with shattering, scary violence and precision.
But as glorious as Mr. Byrne is in these scenes, a great Con - or to be exact, half a great Con - does not a great "Poet" make. "What that needs is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or my old man," O'Neill said of the role. "One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a stage with all the aplomb and regal splendor with which they walked into the old Hoffman House bar, drunk or sober. Most actors in these times lack an air."
Mr. Byrne is the rare contemporary actor who truly has such qualities. He deserves a production that will allow him to turn that air of splendor into the sustained, gale-force dramatic wind that is obviously within him.
Lightning struck a dozen years ago when Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson set fire to the aging rhetorical brush of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" at the Roundabout Theatre. Now the Roundabout has reached back into the lesser O'Neill canon for "A Touch of the Poet," which opened Thursday night at Studio 54 with Gabriel Byrne in a performance of dark, intense intelligence.
But the drama -- completed in 1942 but not staged until five years after the great playwright's death in 1953 -- is less a discovery than a long day's journey in a long hairshirt of a script.
Despite Doug Hughes' conscientious and handsome production, we can feel the hard work from the start. Before Byrne finally enters as Con Melody, the grandiose owner of a shabby inn outside Boston in 1828, a clanking old machine of an exposition tells us everything Con's family did back in Ireland, and everything he did while drunk the previous night.
O'Neill intended this to be part of an II-play cycle, "A Tale of the Possessors Self-Dispossessed," tracing an Irish family through 175 years of exile. He didn't get much further, though.
We find touches of characters from his best work here: the self-centered sense of unfulfilled entitlement of the Tyrone family in "Long Day's Journey into Night," the dependence on "pipe dreams" in "The Iceman Cometh."
Con was raised as Irish gentry, a decorated British hero in a battle against Napoleon and a womanizer who married Nora, the peasant he got pregnant. By the time we meet them, he is a delusional deadbeat: an unassimilated immigrant who wears dusty English riding clothes, complete with crop, except when he prances around in his army uniform on the anniversary of his triumph.
Considering himself a Byronic figure, he abuses his adoring wife (Dearbhla Molloy), channels his jealous hopes into their educated but rebellious daughter Sara (Emily Bergl), and preens at the tavern's dirty mirror reciting -- most obsessively -- "I stand among them, but not of them." The play lasts almost three hours, far longer than it takes us to understand the conflicting reflections in the mirror, and in the bog Irish he treats with such contempt.
The result is majestic and annoying, fascinating and boring. As directed by Hughes ("Doubt"), Byrne flipflops from bluster to confession, from insult to apology, from sentence to sentence, even from subject to predicate. We feel a bit as if we had been tossed into the waning internal monologues of "Strange Interlude," but in that early experiment, O'Neill at least delineates the public person vs. the psyche. Here, Con just seems like a madman.
Nora and Sarah share with him this almost laughable multiple-personality problem, but not until later in the tumultuous evening. Molloy is radiant as the long-suffering wife, an enabler who loves the reflected pride she gets from her abusive husband. Bergl encapsulates the daughter's idealistic love for the rich, sick man she is nursing upstairs and the girl's social ambitions.
Santo Loquasto's tavern set is as massive as the play's intentions, his costumes as varied as the craven desperation of the characters. Kathryn Meisle makes a glorious cameo as the wealthy boy's concerned mother, so complex a character that we keep wishing she'd return. And David Power plays the Uilleann pipes, which drone and trill with an ancient melody that, every so often, stirs the soul of the play.
Living selfishly can be good for the body, if not the soul. This is not the case, however, for Cornelius Melody, the preening, booze-guzzling narcissist at the center of A Touch of the Poet. This being a Eugene O'Neill play, of course, Cornelius is as much a poignant figure as a ridiculous one. As played by Gabriel Byrne in the Roundabout Theatre Company's bracing new production of Poet (* * * ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at Studio 54, he may tickle your funny bone, but he'll ultimately break your heart.
Having last appeared on Broadway as another pitiable O'Neill protagonist, in 2000's revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, the robustly well-preserved Irish actor again throws vanity to the wind with a portrait of a once-promising man gone to seed. We learn that Cornelius, the son of a wily, self-made Irishman, grew up on an estate. By the time we meet him, in 1828, he has lost his family fortune, but not the airs and sense of entitlement that he cultivated despite his father's humble origins.
The middle-aged Cornelius now owns a tavern outside Boston, where he lives with Nora, a lowborn woman he married after getting her pregnant, and their daughter, Sara. While the women toil to keep the crumbling establishment afloat, Cornelius veers drunkenly from romantic rhapsodies in which he ponders his glorious past to raging tirades against the devoted wife he believes trapped him and the proud daughter he sees as having inherited her mother's common ways.
When Sara falls in love with the son of a wealthy American, long-simmering conflicts become exacerbated, as does the tension between past and present, social class and personal responsibility. But the cast, under Doug Hughes' reverent but spirited direction, ensures that the emotions and history binding these characters are as vivid as the dynamics threatening to tear them apart.
Byrne's fully fleshed performance allows us to understand why the Melody women still harbor sympathy and affection for Cornelius. As faded rose Nora, Dearbhla Malloy gives us glowing proof of inner pluck, and guilt, that have survived years of repression. Emily Bergl reveals the tenderness underlying Sara's haughty, and heartily deserved, indignation.
Kathryn Meisle is a supple foil in the chillier role of Sara's beau's mother, while Byron Jennings, Daniel Stewart Sherman and other supporting players capture the protective camaraderie between Cornelius and his buddies.
Their interaction, like Cornelius's self-absorption, seldom makes a pretty picture. But Poet remains a haunting work of art.
Self-deception proves a cruelly corrosive state of mind in Gabriel Byrne's haunting interpretation of Cornelius Melody in "A Touch of the Poe!." By the time Eugene O'Neill's slow-burning drama about the troubled union of the old world with the new has played out, the dreams of this deluded romantic have dissolved, reducing the prideful man to a ghoulish clown. While it feels Initially as stodgy as the rhetoric-spouting, alcoholic windbag driving the action, this distinguished production builds into a commandingly theatrical experience as director Doug Hughes and his cast patiently uncover the play's majestic mournfulness.
Premiered on Broadway in a 1958 staging directed by Harold Clurman and starring Eric Portman, Kim Stanley and Helen Hayes, the play is one of only two surviving works (the other is "More Stately Mansions") from O'Neill's 11-play cycle "A Tale of Possessors Self-Possessed." It was intended to come at the middle of the saga about the hollowness and corruption behind the American dream as reflected in the history of the New England Harford family.
Being a fragment of a larger tale (the rest was torched at O'Neill's insistence), the play must accommodate laborious stretches of expository dialogue that locates the action at the point of conflicted intersection between the patrician Harfords and Melody's Irish peasant family. But the drama's brooding psychological complexity and rancorous family friction, and its sly injections of vinegary humor into dark moments, make it a worthy entry in the great American playwright's canon.
Aptly known as Con, Cornelius is a magnificent fool, a grand poster boy for bipolar dysfunction. His mood swings are dizzying -- preening like a peacock one minute, wallowing in maudlin self-pity the next, his gallantry and charm giving way without warning to vicious insults. In Byrne's capable hands, these ricocheting extremes are as compelling for the audience as they are unnerving for the bruised figures around him.
Despite his reduced status as a cash-strapped innkeeper near Boston in 1828, Can tirelessly keeps alive his past glory as an officer in the Duke of Wellington's army, and his embroidered sense of himself as a gentleman. He's forced to commingle with Irish riffraff who think him a pompous snob, and is spurned by the Yankee gentry as a drunken mick not of their class. Con's vanity has enslaved his wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), and made his daughter, Sara (Emily Bergl), bitterly resentful.
The three family members circle each other with a mix of wariness and weary affection on Santo Loquasto's imposing set -- a central well of aged wood, overhung by a dark ceiling and backed by a stark wall lit by Christopher Akerlind with a ghostly glow that hints at the inescapable weight of the past.
Sent to school to acquire the refinements more fitting to a "gentlemen's daughter," Sara dropped out early and returned to the tavern to share the burden of drudgery with her rheumatic, prematurely aged mother.
It's Sara's bid to flee the oppressive environment into an advantageous marriage that sparks the play's conflicts. Her intended fiance is the unseen Simon Harford, a wannabe Thoreau confined to a bed upstairs after contracting fever while living in a wilderness cabin.
Prone to self-hypnosis while reciting Byron to a prominently positioned mirror, Can admires Simon for his romantic "touch of the poet." But his approval is compromised first by a clumsy brush with Simon's eccentric mother (Kathryn Meisle), whom he attempts to seduce, unaware of her identity. Later, he denies his permission as a means of striking back at Sara for her openly scornful treatment of him: "All I can see in you is a common, greedy, scheming, cunning peasant girl, whose only thought is money and who has shamelessly thrown herself at a young man's head because his family happens to possess a little wealth and position."
Bergl takes time to simmer into the prickly role of Sara, who lays on a thick Irish brogue to rile her father, making no secret of her disgust at his obstinate refusal to face reality. But she becomes more persuasive, driven by both ambition and love, defiantly refusing to back down to her father or the intimidations of Harford's lawyers, whose insulting attempts to buy the Melodys off and prevent the marriage provoke Con to violence.
Molloy creates a wrenching portrait of a woman who has put aside her religious faith to live a life of shame, guilt and selfless toil, choosing to remain in denial about her husband's crippling weaknesses and believe only in her unyielding devotion to him. "There's no slavery in it when you love," Nora says.
The loathing of his roots that erupts in Con's outbursts toward his wife and daughter has more power to scald and shock than any physical violence. "For God's sake, why don't you wash your hair?" he snarls at Nora after first embracing her. "It turns my stomach with its stink of onions and stew!" Or to Sara: "Keep your thick wrists and ugly, peasant paws off the table in my presence, if you please!" Despite being treated by the overpowering central character with a disdain reserved for servants, Molloy and Bergl both etch impressions of dignified resilience.
Byron Jennings has amusing moments as Con's former army associate, not blind to the major's sham but ready all the same to lather on whatever blarney is required to stroke his ego and keep the whiskey flowing.
Perhaps inevitably, all other presences onstage seem pale next to Cornelius. Byrne cuts an arresting figure when he dons full army regalia to celebrate a battle anniversary, but his steely good looks provide only the thinnest mask for his ravaged soul when Con's illusions are shattered. "I am but a ghost haunting a ruin," he says with gloomy self-importance early on. Summoning a tragic grandeur that is unmistakably O'Neill, that pronouncement proves eerily unsettling when Con remains alive -- a denuded, delirious shell of a man once fleshed out by fabrications.