Friday, December 12, 2008

A Touch Of The Poet


By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Alex Lippard. At the 14th Street Theater. (CLOSED)

Terry Teachout at the Wall St. Journal and Martin Denton at go ga-ga for Friendly Fire's bare-bones version of A Touch of the Poet. The play—about the usual mishmash of pipe dreams, family dysfunction, and alcoholism that fills most of O'Neill's realistic work—was last seen in New York in 2005 in a not-well-liked production starring Gabriel Byrne at Roundabout. Critics are all happy to be able to see a clear production of the play at a reasonable price point. Some (particularly the Times and CurtainUp) are unhappy with Hill St. Blues' Danny Travanti's performance as Con Melody. Indeed, the CurtainUp review is one of those curious animals where the reviewer recommends the show and then tells you everything wrong with it, to the point that you don't really believe the recommendation. A
(Martin Denton) O'Neill distills a lifetime of wisdom and pain as he pushes Con and Sara to confront the limits of the illusory personas they've constructed for themselves. Truth collides with love to jolt these two dreamers; one of the interesting aspects of Poet is that by the end we're not at all sure whether any of what Con and Sara made themselves believe is real. Kudos to Friendly Fire for bringing this fine work by one of our greatest American playwrights back to the stage at a very audience-friendly price; and to Lippard and Travanti and his castmates for delivering it with such exquisite care.

Wall St. Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Friendly Fire's Off-Broadway staging is a bargain-basement affair acted on the plainest of sets by a cast consisting mostly of near-unknowns -- but it packs the punch of a bullet in the belly... Like so many of O'Neill's plays, A Touch of the Poet is long-winded and top-heavy... But once the play gets moving, you'll find it was worth the wait.

Backstage A-
(Gwen Orel) The cast is terrific -- even the smaller roles of the drunks at the bars have clearly realized inner lives. I loved Patch (Steven Boyer), the accordion-playing young man so soused he always seems on the verge of passing out. Boyer can really play, too. Crawford as Nora poignantly plays a loving wife who, as the song goes, "weeps with delight when he gives her a smile, and trembles with fear at his frown," bravely loving unconditionally, with a dry wit. Klein as Sara marvelously combines pert sauciness with innocent vulnerability. When her heart opens to love, she's wondrous indeed. Antoinette LaVecchia gives a striking performance as Harford's eccentric, amused mother. Lippard's staging shows pace and precision.

EDGE Boston B+
(Joseph Pisano) A Broadway-quality production on what assuredly was not a Broadway-quality budget.

NYTimes B
(Rachel Saltz) A strange, discursive, often fascinating play... Mr. Travanti gives a big, almost old-fashioned performance ...The director, Alex Lippard, hasn’t imposed a strong vision on this occasionally sloppy production.

CutrainUp B-
(Paulanne Simmons) 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... 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.

NYPost C+
(Frank Schreck) Travanti, who has played the role in several regional productions, is more than convincing as a man whose dignified bearing, good looks and frequent quoting of Byron masks a multitude of character flaws. But in trying to accentuate the character's artificial grandiosity, he has adopted a bizarre manner of speaking - a sort of stilted classicism that calls more attention to the actor's fakery than Con's....Despite the generally fine efforts of the supporting cast, the proceedings seem less like dramatic poetry than banal prose.

NYTheatre A 13; Wall St. Journal A- 12; BS A- 12; Edge B+ 11; NYTimes B 10; CurtainUp B- 9; NYPost C+ 8 TOTAL = 75/7= 10.71 (B+)

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