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Paulanne Simmons

"A Touch of the Poet"
Barely Grazes Us

Robert Cuccioli. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"A Touch of the Poet"
Irish Repertory Theater
132 West 22 Street
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
From Feb. 26, 2022
Tickets: $50-$70, https://irishrep.org/shows/a-touch-of-the-poet/
Closes April 17, 2022
Previewed by Paulanne Simmons March 19, 2022

Eugene O’Neill was a great playwright. But "A Touch of the Poet" is not a great play. It is not only not a great play compared to O’Neill’s other works. It is not a great play… period.

The drama begins with a scene of long and unnecessary exposition. The characters hammer on the same point so relentlessly one expects them to die at any moment from nervous exhaustion. There are too many unimportant characters onstage, while one of the most important characters, the young man Sara Melody wants to marry, despite the opposition of his family and (sometimes) her father, never appears at all.

Nevertheless, "A Touch of the Poet" has been produced on Broadway and off-Broadway many times, often with stellar casts. It’s easy to see why. Pater familias Cornelius “Con” Melody is a delusional, drunken barkeeper who fancies himself an aristocrat and has never recovered from the time the Duke of Wellington recognized his bravery at the Battle of Talavera. His wife, Nora, is so deeply in love with him she humors his follies and suffers his abuse. His daughter, Sara, is justifiably angry at her father’s failure to support the family financially or emotionally, but she is more of a harridan than a heroine. There’s much food here for a really, really good cast.

Unfortunately, Ciarán O’Reilly, who directs the Irish Repertory’s current production, does not have such a cast. Robert Cuccioli is not able to navigate between Melody’s many moods. Nor can he get the audience to that essential spot where sympathy meets abhorrence. Although we hear about the great charm Melody once had, especially with the ladies, Cuccioli does not summon a smidgen of this so we can see the man Melody once was. Ironically, Cuccioli is most successful at the play’s bitter end, when Melody recognizes himself for the miserable fraud he is.

Kate Forbes does a lot of handwringing and heart-clutching, but she ends up turning Nora into an object of pity. She does nothing that’s surprising or dramatic. She just suffers. And Melody’s various carousing cronies are interchangeable and superfluous.

Belle Aykroyd, who plays Sara Melody, is making her New York City theater debut. In such cases it is best to be kind. But certainly, with more guidance from O’Reilly she could have done better than storm through the play like an under-rehearsed understudy.

For all its faults, "A Touch of the Poet" is an excellent study of the Irish immigrant experience in America just before the Jacksonian era. It’s also a moving portrayal of a barely functioning family about to fall apart. But this is not a story that needs two hours and 40 minutes to tell. This is especially evident when the actors are not exactly riveting. Cutting down on the play’s length would make it easier for both the actors and the audience.

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