Gabriel Byrne in A Touch of the Poet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gabriel Byrne in A Touch of the Poet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There are some boors whom you'll put up with on stage but wouldn't allow five minutes of your time in real life. One such blowhard is Cornelius Melody in Eugene O'Neill's insinuating A Touch of the Poet, a work from which busy-busy director Doug Hughes is eliciting some but not enough poetry in the current Broadway revival. The overbearing Melody, played here by Gabriel Byrne, insists on being called Major whether or not he ever held the rank. He is the anti-hero of what was intended to be the first play in the Nobel-winning O'Neill's famously unfinished cycle about the Irish in America.

A household tyrant who abuses his wife and daughter because he believes they've retained the shabeen temperament that he denies having been born to, Melody spends his days drinking and spouting lines from Lord Byron's "Childe Harold" to a mirror. "I stood among them, but not of them," he repeats mawkishly. He's attempting to reenforce the hifalutin pretenses that he wants to be true. Indeed, he thinks nothing of allowing his once-beautiful wife Nora (Dearbhla Molloy) and daughter Sara (Emily Bergl) to slave away in his tavern as long as the bills for feeding his prize possession, a thoroughbred mare, get paid.

Melody is so tangled in the web of his immigrant's aspiration to the upper classes of 1828 New England that his convoluted values drive him to endanger Sara's marriage prospects with a rich Yankee: the unseen Simon Harford, who is recuperating from a minor illness in an upstairs bedroom. (The downstairs family living-dining-room is atmospherically outfitted by Santo Loquasto, who also supplies the appropriate period costumes; Christopher Akerlind lays on a rightly moody lighting design, while David van Tieghem offers complementary sound design and keening original music.)

Like Long Day's Journey Into Night, which A Touch of the Poet resembles in other aspects, the earlier drama unfolds during one particularly charged day. In this case, it's the anniversary of the Battle of Talavera, in which Wellington defeated Napoleon's army well before Waterloo and at which Melody claims to have been honorably present. After making a pass at Simon's mother (Kathryn Meisle), booting an importuning Harford lawyer (John Horton) out the door, and charging off with pal Jamie Cregan (Byron Jennings) to have his revenge on the toffs, Melody begins to face up to the illusions he has worked so hard to construct and to see himself as others see him; he reaches realistic conclusions about his hateful behavior and, consequently, takes unexpected action.

Therein lies the subtle power of this arrow from the commodious O'Neill quiver. It's also where the title -- a phrase bandied about several times throughout the play -- takes hold. Sara resists her father's dictates at every turn, in large part because she despises the relentlessly abusive treatment her mother receives. Yet she's a young woman of ambition herself, one who doesn't quite realize until it's too late that there's something to be said for the mad and maddening touch of the poet in her father.

To some extent, A Touch of the Poet is about what constitutes a man's figurative size. Byrne proved a first-rate O'Neill interpreter in 2000 when he played a soulful, world-weary James Tyrone Jr. in the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, but he's less effective as the now abruptly accusatory, now abruptly apologetic Melody. The character is meant to be someone who's putting on insufferable airs -- yet, for much of the play, Byrne is more like an actor attempting to put on a character's elusive airs. Only in the final minutes of the play is he convincingly fiery, and these are the moments when the Melody has shrunk in his own estimation.

For the most part, the supporting players fare better. Molloy is just right as Melody's wife, the long-suffering enabler. Jennings, Meisle, and Horton also do well with their assignments; so do Daniel Stewart Sherman as a husky bartender and Ciáran O'Reilly and Randall Newsome as patrons happy for a free drink. Unfortunately, though Bergl is lovely in flowing clothes and flattering Tom Watson wigs, she also lacks the touch of the large-scale needed for the play's father/daughter scenes to fully catch fire.

At the end of A Touch of the Poet, something's gained and something's lost. Having listened to her changed father regaling drunken patrons off-stage, Sara says to Nora, "I heard someone. But it isn't anyone I ever knew or want to know." O'Neill is saying that great sorrow sometimes results from the unresolvable paradoxes in which groups and individuals often find themselves locked. Such insight is the hallmark of a major playwright, and why A Touch of the Poet is worth your time.