Review: Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet Comes to the Irish Repertory Theatre
Robert Cuccioli stars in this new revival off-Broadway.
It wouldn't be a Eugene O'Neill play without an excess of alcohol. A Touch of the Poet, playing at Irish Repertory Theatre, is certainly no exception to this rule; like so many O'Neill dramas, it heavily features the dysfunctional combination of alcoholism and masculinity. This particular play concerns Major Cornelius "Con" Melody (Robert Cuccioli), once a castle-owning member of the Irish aristocracy and an honored officer during the Napoleonic Wars, who now, in 1828, owns a meager tavern and inn in Massachusetts and uses whiskey as his coping mechanism. In addition, he mistreats his wife, Nora (Kate Forbes) — an Irish peasant whom he impregnated and then was forced to marry — and their daughter, Sara (Belle Aykroyd).
Strictly speaking, A Touch of the Poet is not a very good play, both in general and for Eugene O'Neill. While he famously railed against American melodrama, this play is steeped in it: it includes two seduction plots, a duel, a brawl, and Con recites Lord Byron into a mirror multiple times. Almost everyone is drunk for much of the play, and they constantly insult each other but then immediately apologize with such speed that it never feels "realistic." It also has a hefty run time, at two hours and 40 minutes. To make matters worse, this is a not particularly good production of a not particularly good play.
Director (and Irish Rep co-founder) Ciarán O'Reilly appears unable to make sense of the play. The production doesn't really avoid the text's crude melodrama, or smooth out its structural roughness, or conquer its pacing issues. Likewise, he often relies on gimmicky blocking, making the actors run laps around the small tavern tables. The set by Charlie Corcoran effectively evokes a New England inn in the 19th century, but makes the space feel cramped and gives the actors very little room to move around.
As for the company, they come across as under-directed, and they all feel like they're in their own play. Aykroyd (daughter of Ghostbuster Dan), as the Major's daughter, has to carry much of the emotional weight of the play and is unable to do so. Cuccioli doesn't help matters either; he plays the role as a hollow caricature that makes his many repetitive speeches and drunken rants intolerable. The only shining star here is Mary McCann, who has just one short scene, but squeezes the most out of it. She makes this melodramatic O'Neill feel more like a witty Wilde play.
O'Neill is a hard playwright for any director to work with. In a similar situation, director Robert O'Hara recently gave us a modernized and trimmed Long Day's Journey Into Night (a much superior play), but the production groaned under its own weight (despite O'Hara trimming it) and, set during the pandemic, often worked at cross-purposes to the text. There is something to be said of O'Reilly's more traditional approach: perhaps O'Neill is not a very relevant playwright to our times, and he is better staged in more conventional ways.
This was my first time at Irish Rep, and I went in not knowing what to expect. While I didn't enjoy this production, my experience made me think about how theater companies curate their seasons with their audiences in mind. The audience around me, which appeared to be almost entirely made up of subscribers, loved this conventional, melodramatic revival. So my many qualms with this production (and with constant O'Neill revivals and his position in the canon, in general), don't really matter. Irish Rep knows its brand, knows what it is about, knows its loyal audience, and creates productions that they like (including this one) – this model clearly works for them. So if you like O'Neill classics and the offerings at Irish Rep, maybe this is for you; for those like me, not so much.