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A Touch of the Poet

Theatre Review by David Hurst - March 8, 2022

Kate Forbes and Robert Cuccioli
Photo by Carol Rosegg
In the pantheon of dysfunctional fathers given life by Eugene O'Neill, few are as seldom seen or as difficult to portray as Cornelius "Con" Melody in O'Neill's blistering examination of toxic masculine pride, A Touch of the Poet. Written in 1942 but not performed until 1958 after O'Neill's death, the last major sighting of Poet was the 2005 revival at Roundabout's Studio 54 starring the magnificent Gabriel Byrne, who was stifled in a production whose supporting cast didn't rise to Byrne's occasion. In the current revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the shoe is on the other foot as the technical production and supporting cast are superb, but its star, Robert Cuccioli, works far too hard at portraying a common Irish peasant masquerading as an English gentleman.

Set in 1828 at a village tavern a few miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts, A Touch of the Poet finds the Melody family continuing their struggle for existence as they've done for years. Their penniless patriarch Con (Robert Cuccioli) lives a bipolar, whiskey-soaked existence in which half the time he relives imagined wealth and battle glories, and the other half he berates his long-suffering wife Nora (Kate Forbes) and his antagonist daughter Sara (Belle Aykroyd), who constantly derides her father and gives as good as she gets. He always blames his cruelty on the whiskey, but Nora and Sara know better; they've seen and heard all of Con's delusional realities before, too many times to count.

Sara and Nora have been taking care of an unseen, wealthy young man, Simon Hartford, who fell ill at the tavern. Sara has her eye on him as a potential husband who will get her out of the tavern where she works as a waitress, simultaneously elevating her station in life. Sara is nobody's fool, and she knows what she may have to do to secure a marriage proposal from Simon, but his parents throw obstacles in her path, including a visit from Simon's mother Deborah (Mary McCann) and an insulting offer of money from his unseen father. Fueled by an evening of drinking, the attempted payoff of the Melody family is the last straw for Con, leading him to finally see himself as the peasant he is, much to the shocked consternation of his family.

For his part, Cuccioli is working hard to get his hands around Con's complex character, but perhaps he's working too hard. Of course, to accuse an actor of overacting while playing a man who inherently overacts seems unfair. But, at the performance I attended, too often the audience was laughing giddily at Cuccioli's wildly abrupt changes in tone and temperament when that laughter should have been laced with nervous tension. More than once Cuccioli's acting reminded this writer of Jon Lovett's "Master Thespian" sketches on "Saturday Night Live." "I was only acting!," indeed. O'Neill's writing gives Con a self-awareness that needs to be the heartbreaking center of any performance of this difficult role and Cuccioli only seems self-aware of himself, not the character he's playing.

Mary McCann and Belle Aykroyd
Photo by Carol Rosegg
As Sara, a critical role in Poet, Belle Aykroyd Is uncomfortably miscast. There is nothing in her carriage, demeanor or voice that suggests she is inhabiting an Irish woman who's grown up outside of Boston in the early 19th century. Her line readings and physical posturing are filled with contemporary, anachronistic touches that continually pull the audience out of the moment.

Fortunately, the rest of the Poet cast is superb. As Con's wife Nora, Kate Forbes gives a luminous, riveting performance which becomes the heart of this revival. As Simon's calculating mother, Mary McCann has a small amount of stage time, but she makes a spectacular impression, first with an inappropriately flirtatious Con and then a parting conversation with Sara in which the two match wits and Mrs. Hartford comes out the clear victor. It is a dazzling cameo and McCann plays it to delicious perfection. Similarly, the men who populate the tavern's bar (and take advantage of Con's generosity with the bottle) all give spot-on performances, particularly: James Russell as Mickey Maloy, the tavern's goodhearted bartender; Andy Murray as Jamie Cregan, who served in the British army with Con; and David Sitler as Patch Riley, Rex Young as Paddy O'Dowd and David Beck as Dan Roche–three roustabouts who provide local color and populate the tavern's bar. And the wonderfully understated John C. Vennema has a memorable scene as Mr. Hartford's lawyer, who is sent to the tavern to negotiate with Con.

Interestingly, the director of this production, Ciarán O'Reilly, appeared as Dan Roche in the 2005 Roundabout revival, so he knows the play well. His direction here is tight and focused, but it can't correct the uneven performances of Cuccioli and Aykroyd in the pivotal leading roles.

A Touch of the Poet
Through April 17, 2022
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: