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A CurtainUp Review
A Touch of the Poet

If you'd seen him then, you wouldn't wonder. He was as strong as an ox, and on a thoroughbred horse, in his uniform, there wasn't a handsomer man in the army.—Jamie Cregan
Daniel J. Travanti
Daniel J. Travanti
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's not every day that theatergoers get to see one of Eugene O'Neill's late plays, A Touch of the Poet, staged. The play's last major revival was back in 2005 when Gabriel Byrne took the leading role on Broadway. So when a chance to see it for a mere $20, just a bit more than the price of a movie ticket, comes along, it's cause for celebration. Friendly Fire's production certainly represents a strong attempt to stage this classic well and with solid performances, and it deserves the attention of both O'Neill fans and those who have yet to be introduced to this great American playwright.

The play has two characters who have the unique quality described by the title. One is Major Cornelius Melody, a dissipated Irish-American innkeeper raised to be a gentleman by a father who had climbed to the top through thievery and moneylending. The other is Simon, a young Harvard graduate who is never seen on stage but figures hugely in the play.

Melody is sick at heart, having reached the zenith of his life when, after the battle of Talavera, the Duke of Wellington "did me the honor before all the army to commend my bravery" — an event he is preparing to commemorate with friends as the play opens. Since his glory days Melody has experienced nothing but failure and disappointment. But, in his own mind, he is still a proud aristocrat, with a fine mare, his old uniform and a subservient family to prove it.

Simon, a young man who has won the heart of Melody's daughter Sara, lies upstairs, ill after succumbing to some unspecified disease while living in a cabin in the wilderness and contemplating a philosophical work he has yet to write. One suspects if he ever loses his money, he may end up just as Melody has.

Melody takes his frustrations out on his wife Nora, a once beautiful woman he married after making her pregnant, and the daughter who refuses to be a gentlewoman and scorns his pretentions. When Simon expresses a desire to marry Sara, Melody is prepared to borrow money for her "settlement." In his self-delusion he never dreams how the young man's parents will respond to the idea of such a marriage.

Although Melody from time to time comforts himself by reciting lines from Byron, the real poetry in this drama comes from O'Neill's genius — his superb ability to make his characters speak with passion and despair, using metaphors that trip off their tongue as lightly as a "How do you do?" A good actor can shine by letting O'Neill's poetry shape a character and speak for itself. In theory this should be simple, but in fact, it is not always the case.

Daniel J. Travanti, who has played the role of Melody to great acclaim at American Repertory Theatre in Boston, Area Stage in Washington, D.C. and The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, takes up the role again in Friendly Fire's current staging, directed by Alex Lippard, the company's artistic director. While giving an impressively vigorous performance, Travanti, has nothing of the called for subtlety. In his hands Melody becomes a caricature of an arrogant bully with no redeeming traits. Lacking grace or charm, he becomes more of an abusive husband and unkind father than a man in turmoil. He is so spiteful that it's hard to see why his wife (Ellen Crawford) ever loved him, or how an old friend like Jamie Cregan (Richard B. Watson) can still respect him. Moreover he fails to negotiate the changes in Melody's attitude toward his family during those moments when his destructive anger temporarily turns into contrite remorse.

Travanti sucks up so much of the play's energy and space that the other actors have to fight for survival. Thus Tessa Klein makes Sara so angry and unpleasant that it's hard to remember that her feelings are quite justified. Crawford, much too pale and thin for a woman who admits she has gone to fat, tries to compensate for the physical miscasting with a hard, dry passion that obscures the feisty woman she once must have been. Both Klein and Crawford are much better when Travanti is offstage and they have the freedom to display their formidable talents. Their scenes together are filled with the touching ambivalence one often sees in mother-daughter relationships, especially when they are overshadowed by an overbearing father/husband.

The other supporting actors do indeed make an impression. Richard B. Watson is an excellent Jamie Cregan, lusty and loyal. Ian Stuart has the perfect supercilious tone as Nicholas Gadsby, the Hartfords' attorney. And Timothy Smallwood gives the servant, Mickey Maloy, the right combination of compassion and cruelty.

Travanti performs quite well at the end of the play, but it would have worked much better if it contrasted with a more restrained beginning and middle. While this production has many good points, it would have been better if it had not allowed the blow of a sledgehammer to get in the way of the touch of a poet.

Editor's Note: Theater goers have a rare opportunity to not only see this late O'Neill play but also one of his earliest, Anna Christie, also at a bargain price. To read a review of that production go here. For more about O'Neill and links to other plays reviewed, see Curtainup's Backgrounder.

A Touch of the Poet
By Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Alex Lippard
Cast: Timothy Smallwood (Mickey Maloy), Richard B. Watson (Jamie Cregan), Tessa Klein (Sara Melody), Ellen Crawford (Nora Melody), Daniel J. Travanti (Cornelius Melody), Richard Crawford (Dan Roche), Peter Rogan (Paddy O'Dowd), Steven Boyer (Patch Riley), Antoinette LaVecchia (Mrs. Henry Harford), Ian Stuart (Nicholas Gadsby)
Set Design: Michael W. Moore
Costume Design: Amanda Bujak
Lighting Design: Miriam Nilofa Crowe
Sound Design: William J. Pickens
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes, with one intermission Friendly Fire at14th Street Theater, 344 East 14th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues 212-352-3101
From 12/02/08; opening 12/07/08; closing 12/20/08
Tuesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm, and Sundays at 3:00pm.
Tickets: $20
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 5, 2008
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