A Touch of the Poet
by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Doug Hughes, starring Gabriel Byrne
Roundabout Theatre Company, at Studio 54
The payoff for Gabriel Byrne's casting in A Touch of the Poet lies, of course, in his brogue. Not that you'll hear it for more than two hours into the proceedings, for up until then Byrne is playing essentially a different character. His performance is an impressively schizoid rendering of this oddly compelling late creation of Eugene O'Neill--Major Cornelius ("Con") Melody: braggart, climber, victim of the American class system circa 1828. The arc of O'Neill's narrative requires Con to strut and plume his officer-class pretensions for most of the play, until his own foolhardiness and society's snobbery against his Irish upstart origins end up humiliating him to that point in tragedy where the hero will either redeem himself through self-mutilation or a really, really long speech. After watching Byrne play Con the "gentleman" for most of the evening (decked out in a flashy redcoat uniform, with an indeterminate accent of "class")--playing it with great and enjoyable relish, to be sure--both actor and character seem magically simultaneously liberated in this climax. Witnessing Byrne rip through these final pages with such maniacal fury, giving full voice to his natural sharp-edged mother tongue is a theatrical thrill. Ah, we say, this is why this man is playing this role. A great feeling in the theatre.
Byrne has more going for him than his accent, of course. But if the rest of his performance doesn't communicate all the complex depths O'Neill's nigh-impossible script seems to demand, part of the failing has to lie in the inexplicably tired production director Doug Hughes has constructed to house it. Hughes seems to give into all the potential pitfalls of the script: since people sit and talk a lot, for instance, he lays out two convenient sets of table-and-chairs down front so people can do just that, incessantly, and nothing else. Santo Loquasto presents us with an impressive amount of wood and a faux huge fireplace and chimney dead center stage, which, though non-working, still manages to suck up all the air on stage nevertheless. Nowhere in this dull setting and Christopher Akerlind's(surprisingly) generic lighting is any sense of atmosphere. I mean, how often to you get to realize the world of early America in 1828 rural Massachusetts? I focus on the externals of this production as typical of how Hughes and co. have stretched so little imagination in approaching script that demands to be interpreted. (And, sorry Doug, the live presence of a Uilleann pipes player isn't enough. It may please our ears but gets us no deeper into O'Neill's troubled Irish souls here.)
Unlike Ben Brantley, I lay the blame squarely at Hughes' feet more than the supporting cast. Byron Jennings is giving it all he's got as Con's sidekick, Jamie, and I found Dearbhla Molloy quite affecting in the problematic martyred role of his wife, Nora. (And kudos to Hughes for casting them both to be sure, and for sensing the benefits of Molloy's authentic Irishness.) Kathryn Meisle may be too young for the Yankee rich-bitch Mrs. Harford, but does exactly what the role calls for in a subtle and commanding way.... No, it is Hughes' squandering of these fine resources on a routine, perfunctory staging of a difficult play that is the regrettable story here. A Touch of the Poet may not be top-drawer O'Neill. (A curious digression for someone in the midst of his masterful late period of Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey.) But all the raw material is there for a memorable and searing evening of Irish tragedy by way of O'Neill's gloomy modernist mind.
One more parting note about the play--when Con made his final, blood-soaked final transformational entrance, rediscovering his repressed ethnic roots--it was hard not to think of August Wilson. The bullying masculinity, the forces of social discrimination, would all be equally at home in Wilson, too. Poet invites the comparison especially since it was O'Neill's first play in a projected cycle of his own (the eleven-play grandly titled A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed). Perhaps not encouraged by his first installment (Poet was never even performed in O'Neill's lifetime) O'Neill abandoned it, burning all his notes and manuscripts save some fragments of More Stately Mansions. But compare the project itself to the similarly saga- and historically-minded August Wilson ten-play cycle on the African American 20th Century experience. Of course, its the dramaturgical vision I'm comparing more than the sheer form, but so many were the echoes for me in this play. Or, rather, the echoes were of that common forefather of both playwrights. When Con takes out his act of self-mutilation at the end on his poor horse, the reference was clearly to Ibsen, whose "Wild Duck" faced the same fate as a convenient symbol. Wilson may have claimed never to have read Ibsen. But, with his obsessive use of symbolic objects and blood and sacrifice, I maintain his death this year marked the passing of the last American Ibsenite. The first, of course, was Eugene O'Neill.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
A Touch of the Poet