Review: ‘Touch of the Poet’ is a Powerful Study in Toxic Pride

It’s all Byron’s fault. Before James Dean and Gary Cooper and Heathcliff and Rochester — all the real and fictional men lounging at the center of the Venn diagram of “bad boys” and “sad boys” — Byron made such a career of drinking, lusting and gallivanting that he became a type. The Byronic hero: temperamental, hedonistic and romantic. “I am such a strange mélange of good and evil,” the poet once wrote of himself, “that it would be difficult to describe me.” Save it for your Tinder profile, bro.

Byron also embodied a masculine ideal defined by paradoxes. A man of society who scorns status. A virile lover made impotent by ennui. A dreamer plagued by disillusionment.

These contradictions sit at the heart of Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 play “A Touch of the Poet.” Irish Repertory Theater’s new online production, with its cunning use of technology and design — each actor filmed separately but sharing the same virtually rendered set — provides a hearty serving of digital theater that nearly matches the real thing.

But first, back to the sad boys. O’Neill wasn’t exactly known for happy plays, and “A Touch of the Poet,” one of his later works, bears that signature. A lengthy domestic tragedy about toxic pride and futile posturing in an American society that won’t validate delusions of grandeur, the play makes Byron its patron saint, heralded and prayed to and emulated as the “poet and nobleman who made of disdain immortal music.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? But the man with Byron on the brain, Major Cornelius “Con” Melody (Robert Cuccioli), can’t make anything but a dissonant racket of his disdain. So he borrows the words of Byron, quoting the poet in front of the mirror as though he’s trying to enchant himself: “I stood among them but not of them,” he says grimly, considering his environs.

It’s 1828, and he’s the owner of a pub in Massachusetts but has no money; he freely dips into the inventory. He resents his life, maintaining that he was tricked into buying the pub, weaseled out of his fortune and status in Ireland by the damn Yankees here in the United States.

His steadfast wife Nora (Kate Forbes) dotes on him despite the ire he shoots her way. Their daughter Sara (Belle Aykroyd), however, taunts her Byron-quoting father, who boasts of the one valiant battle he fought — Talavera, he declares again and again, with a loving roll of the tongue.

Meanwhile Sara nurses an unseen sick guest upstairs, a gentleman Yankee who is also afflicted with the touch of the poet, though more of the transcendentalist variety. She is in love with her Thoreau, who scribbles poems in a cabin by a lake, but their courtship is complicated by her father and their families’ difference in status.

Ciarán O’Reilly’s assiduous direction of the lengthy production effectively captures how egos clash over one day in this tight setting. The lead roles are challenging; Cuccioli has the pretentious, stiff-backed pageantry and the distant look of nostalgia in his eyes, but occasionally labors through Con’s lightning-fast changes in temperament. Aykroyd’s Sara matches Con’s boasts with scathing ridicule and her own highhanded sense of self-worth, but Aykroyd is not always as effective conveying her character’s veiled affections.

ImageKate Forbes as a loyal wife who dotes on her often dismissive husband.
Credit…via Irish Rep

Forbes’s Nora is the rock of the play — loyal to a fault but also kicked aside. She slouches through the virtual bar, fussing and tending to Con while he spits vitriol; still, she delivers O’Neill’s language in a singing Irish brogue that’s its own poetry.

Admirably, O’Reilly has mounted a production with such chemistry and pep that it stands as a reminder of those pre-pandemic theater days of yore. It is a marvel to see actors not in Zoom boxes but seeming to share the same space, with a gaggle of Irishmen loudly getting sloshed in the background.

And it’s not just pixelated heads floating against a digital backdrop. We see the actors’ full bodies as they enter and exit the family pub. All the better to take in Charlie Corcoran’s beautifully detailed bar setting and Alejo Vietti’s handsome costume design, from Nora’s peasant attire to Con’s foppish threads.

Sarah Nichols’s video editing, however, sometimes does a disservice to the proceedings. The abrupt cuts — especially during scenes depicting conversations between two characters, which rapidly switch between landscape and speaker views — can be distracting.

O’Neill, the verbose old devil, gets too gabby in the last two acts, over-explaining through the dialogue, with the self-righteous Sara his particular mouthpiece. But it’s forgivable given how well Cuccioli handles Con’s final scenes, after a confrontation leaves him irrevocably changed.

After all, when Con first appears, dressed in dusty shades of purple like a retired royal, we already know he’s our Byronic hero. But O’Neill won’t allow us to romanticize this man, whose measure of himself is always foremost on his mind.

One interesting aspect of watching “Touch of the Poet” right now: As the Melody family reckons with their regrets and resentments, an election is happening in the background. Andrew Jackson, “idol of the riffraff,” the “contemptible, drunken scoundrel,” as Con calls him early on, is about to become the next president. By the end, Con is cheering for Jackson, too.

Delusions of entitlement versus faith in reason: How striking to watch a work that O’Neill wrote about another American election season speak so forcefully to our own.

A Touch of the Poet
Through Nov. 1; irishrep.org. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes.

Leave a Reply