The year is 1828. There are no paying customers as yet in the

dimly-lit dining room of Melody’s rustic rundown tavern, a few miles

outside of Boston. A lone seated man is playing the Uilleann pipes.

The plaintive melody gradually becomes more insistent and aggressive,

and we hear, as in a distant memory, the beating of a regimental drum,

the whinnying of frightened horses amid the clatter of battle. The

short prelude stirs the soul just enough to feel the presence of a

former glory that has not been allowed to dissipate, but remains as a

constant in the ether of the tavern and in the illusions of its owner

Cornelius Melody (Gabriel Byrne). It is a glory that permeates "A

Touch of the Poet," the only play of his planned 11-part American

history cycle that Eugene O’Neill managed to complete.

Born into wealth in the old country, Con is a continually drunk

ex-Irish officer in Wellington’s army who suffered a disgrace while

serving in the Peninsula Wars. His immigration to the new world has

forced on him a life he cannot identify with or make a success. He has

come to America with his wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), and daughter,

Sara (Emily Bergyl), only to fall upon hard times when his remote

tavern fails to attract customers. Unable to cope with his loss of

prestige and honor, he nevertheless strides about the tavern in his

bright red military garb, pompously confusing his dreams of the past

with the sad facts that define the present. Unable to show any love

for Nora, his doting, supportive, hard-working peasant wife, he

instead constantly assails her.

He berates his daughter for wanting to marry a young gentleman of

means but is incensed when the boy’s parents make an offer of cash to

prevent the wedding. For her part, Sarah scornfully rebukes her father

for his failure to face reality. The principal conflict occurs when

Sara falls in love with Simon, the well-to-do American who has fallen

ill and remains unseen in an upstairs bedroom. Con takes offense to

the negative response by Simon’s parents, notably his mother (Kathyrn

Meisle), and the family attorney (Nicholas Gadsby), and effects a

revenge that turns out a bit differently than he expects.

This exemplary, beautifully staged and acted revival, under the

direction of Douglas Hughes, comes close on the heels of the

well-received "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (produced during the 2000

season), and a lot of credit must go to the dynamic portrayals by

Byrne, the star of both.

As much as the late Jason Robards distinguished himself as the

definitive O’Neill interpreter, may I respectfully submit that Byrne

is picking up the mantle with authority, presence, and perhaps even a

bit more panache. It is the lightness of touch that Byrne weaves

throughout his character’s otherwise melodramatic excesses that

validates those who consider the play, in part as a parody of "The

Count of Monte Cristo," the vehicle that supported Eugene’s father,

James O’Neill, throughout his career.

In "Poet" Eugene O’Neill integrates generosity and selfishness, as

only the Irish-American master of epoch-scaled blarney could do. In

doing so, he creates a classically structured portrait of a family

bound by a love-hate relationship. Although the play needed neither

flowery lyricism nor desperate dramaturgy to reveal itself as a closer

look at the inner O’Neill, it is nevertheless generously full of it

and happily so.

Boring moments exist in all O’Neill plays, but in "A Touch of the

Poet" they seem to disappear quickly. The slow and methodically

crafted story cleverly exposes the almost humorous contradictions of

Con’s behavior. In this well-cast and excellently staged production

the wordiness and flaws so often noticed in O’Neill’s plays are almost

instantly forgotten.

Notwithstanding the contribution of director Hughes for bringing

nuance and detail, relevance and clarity to this play, there is much

to say about the superior quality of the performances. All reflect the

obligatory melodramatics even as we respond to the humor. That there

will always be room made in an O’Neill play for a few drunken

incoherencies and a certain amount of vague motivation doesn’t disturb

the maturing O’Neill’s complex consideration of Con.

Byrne stunningly brings into perspective Con’s world of self-delusion

and introspective digressions into the past, often while gazing

narcissistically into a mirror and reciting poetry. He alternates this

without a missed beat with the bombastic and arrogant verbal abuse of

his wife and daughter. It is a feat that Byrne pulls off brilliantly

through a finely-tuned brogue. He never allows Con to become

despicable or unsympathetic. His drunkenness never becomes a crutch,

but an anchor he could drop at will. He remains in total control while

he maneuvers in and out of every port of dreams. Humiliated at a duel

of honor, Con loses the last vestiges of his dream world and seeks

final refuge with his cronies at the bar (excellently portrayed by

Daniel Stewart Sherman and Byron Jennings, Ciaran O’Reilly and Randall

Newsome).

Bergyl is marvelously feisty as the strong-willed daughter, Sarah, but

she also earns our attention with a wide range of emotions that could,

when necessary, be unleashed with hurricane force. As Nora, Molloy

poignantly reveals a woman who could love for its own sake but never

be totally shattered by its frustrations. Meisle affects a coyly

insinuating layer to her performance as Simon’s mother, whose

proprieties are momentarily shaken by the charismatic Con. Beautifully

designed (setting and costumes) by Santo Loquasto, this dramatically

harmonious, immensely humorous production is a splendid and welcome

addition to the Broadway season.

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