ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
A Touch of the Poet
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.