A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Gabriel Byrne, with Dearbhla Molloy, Emily Bergl, John Horton, Byron Jennings, Kathryn Meisle, Randall Newsome, Ciaran O'Reilly, Daniel Stewart Sherman.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, which just opened at Studio 54, is a first-rate example of how to present a second-rate not-quite-masterpiece to today's audiences.
The formula: Hire a role-appropriate star primarily renowned for his film work (Gabriel Byrne). Hire a hot-hot-hot director (Tony winner Doug Hughes) to stage it. Find a terrific supporting cast and a group of top designers to bring the world to life. Then - this is crucial - pray it all works out.
Well, it all does. And it all doesn't.
Theatrical chemical reactions are difficult to prevent when all the elements are right, but the tiniest spark won't always give way to a roaring flame, which is the case here. For what it is, the Roundabout production could scarcely be better. But greatness eludes both Hughes's highly efficient mounting and the work itself, which is deservedly never mentioned in the same breath with O'Neill's more epic masterpieces.
The first play (and only surviving completed one) in O'Neill's planned cycle charting an Irish immigrant family over many decades of American history, it's more notable for what it promises than what it actually delivers. At the center of its story, which is set in 1828, is Cornelius Melody (Byrne). A former soldier of distinction who expends much energy reliving his past glories, he was disgraced in the old country and has brought his family to America to start over and build a life as prosperous as the one he believes he deserves.
But the tavern he's constructed outside of Boston, which is essentially run by his wife Nora (Dearbhla Molloy) and daughter Sara (Emily Bergl), hasn't prospered, and his recent purchase of a thoroughbred mare has provided more cash-flow problems than status enhancements. When Sara falls in love with Simon Harford, a wealthy American man she's nursing back to health, her father sees a chance to turn around his fortunes. But he unwittingly proves to the man's mother exactly the kind of family her son would be marrying into.
As kitchen-sink costume drama, it's effective enough: One can easily imagine a story like this one spawning a tear-jerking, hand-wringing 1980s miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. But by the standards of American drama that O'Neill himself helped raise, Cornelius Melody's saga is run-of-the-mill. Even compared to only O'Neill's own works, Melody's problems seem shallower and more simplistic than those facing The Iceman Cometh's Theodore Hickman or Long Day's Journey Into Night's James Tyrone Sr.
At the very least, those two men are more dynamic masters of illusion capable of casting stronger, more enticing spells on those around them. There are no real questions about where Melody has been or where he's going; he exists primarily for O'Neill to lay the foundation for his series, of Old-World pride clashing with New-World values and leaving little but personal destruction in its wake. But Melody, offering little of unique distinction as a central figure, can't develop the true tragic delusions that have defined the greatest characters in American drama, from O'Neill's own creations to Amanda Wingfield, Willy Loman, and even Gypsy's Madam Rose.
So it's not a true star part that most actors would lust after. But if one does ponder Byrne's desire to tackle the role, he's a fine choice, with ideally faded good looks, the properly musty aristocratic air, and distant eyes that search every person and every object for something they have no real hope of finding. Watch him try to pour the first of his day's many libations - his hands, trembling so with anticipation that they seem to be separate from his body, tell you as much about Melody's journey than O'Neill established in dialogue. And when he appears bedecked in his old military uniform (the costumes and sets are by Santo Loquasto), it's a thrillingly unsettling marriage between the silver past and the tarnished present.
It's a solidly crafted performance in a role that can't carry the show. It's the supporting characters who propel the narrative and emotional aspects of the story, and it's here that this production grows from fine into exquisite: Molloy is a revelation as Nora, impossibly strong and impossibly yielding yet believably accepting of her husband's crippling faults. She conveys so much love, attraction, and personal devotion to him that you implicitly understand why she lives out her degrading life with him instead of a more rewarding one apart. Bergl is a trifle modern as Sara, but presents a flowingly rugged picture of innocence about to be violated, in multiple ways. If mostly relegated to the background, the other actors, including Byron Jennings and Ciaran O'Reilly as two of Melody's cohorts, do excellent, polished work of their own.
But it's Kathryn Meisle who's most emblematic of this production. She appears for scarcely more than 10 minutes as Deborah Harford, Simon's mother, and a target of Melody's amorous advances. The way she comports herself with stiff-backed dignity in the face of a surprising, degrading situation is utterly understated and yet joyously over the top, in that way only expert comic performances can be. One is reminded of Adriane Lenox, who last season earned a Tony for her one brief, astounding scene in Doubt; Meisle's work here, similar in style and impact, would seem to warrant at least a nomination.
Ultimately, her character is no more than a footnote in the troubled life of a bizarre man. But the actress gives it climactic, titanic life, transcending what's on the page to find the more real, theatrical truth that O'Neill wrote into his better plays. One could argue, perhaps, that Meisle's subdued flamboyance unbalances the play at a crucial moment, and one might even be right.
But neither she, nor anyone else, does anything wrong; this is just a play in which it's hardly possible to do everything right. Her scene provides the much-needed touch of the expansive, all-encompassing O'Neill who redefined American drama by dreaming big and writing bigger. One wishes that A Touch of the Poet were more wholly touched by the poet of Iceman or Long Days' Journey, who could make even this compact play comparably oversized. But the life that Meisle finds is one contribution that thankfully isn't too small.