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New York City Theater

"A Touch of the Poet"
Studio 54 Theater

Eugene O'Neill’s "A Touch of the Poet" may not be his best work, yet it has power and substance, as its initial Broadway production in 1958 showed. But the new outing, while filled with moments that are rich with language and fire, is disappointing.

The protagonist is Cornelius (Con) Melody, the names evoking both the sly and lyrical sides of a man whose head is filled with pipe dreams. Like so many O'Neill heroes, he fools himself, while believing he's also conned those around him.

As innkeeper of a Boston tavern, Melody is a petty tyrant living in the past. A refugee from Ireland, he lords it over his patient, loving wife Nora, who works in the kitchen, and his rebellious daughter Sara, forced to be chambermaid and waitress.

Deceiving himself into believing he’s a Byronesque figure, he rides through the countryside on his beloved mare, tries to seduce the mother of Sara's fiancé and indulges the Yankee neighbors and customers whom he secretly despises. Every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Talavera he dons his dress uniform to relive what he remembers as a time of glory and praise.

Of course, he gets his comeuppance. A man who descries the world's "scum" is figuratively lowered into the grave he himself has dug. Recovering the peasant roots he thinks he left behind, he has merely exchanged one game for another.

In this production, instead of a near-tragic ending wherein Melody is disabused of his fantasies, we get a near-comic one. Under Doug Hughes' otherwise meticulous direction, the transformation is unbelievable, the tone light and frothy, quite negating O'Neill's sense of damnation and guilt.

Not that Gabriel Byrne couldn’t play the character's defeat as superbly as he plays his poses. As the haughty, vain, vicious, lascivious Con, Byrne is a towering figure whose fall should be devastating. But the actor is further hampered by Santo Loquasto's ridiculously overblown set that dwarfs the characters. This tavern is no dilapidated, hateful eyesore, as O'Neill would have it, but an imposing edifice of which anyone would be proud.

Besides Byrne, Dearbhla Molloy as Nora and Byron Jennings as Jamie, one of the denizens, come off best. They struggle mightily, and often succeed in this three-hour evening. But the battle is eventually lost.

-- David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 26, 2005

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