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Aisle Seat: Eugene O'Neill's Poetic Dreams

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

By Naomi Serviss / New York City

Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning

American playwright Eugene O’Neill

did not do whimsy.

His complicated genius

and poetically tragic life,

reflected in familiar masterworks,

Long Day’s Journey into Night and

The Iceman Cometh, are

emotionally thrilling time bombs

of mythic proportions,

merging human failures

with unanswered existential questions.

The Irish Repertory Theatre scheduled

its opening of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet,

for March 2020.

The company had rehearsed four weeks.

Sets had been constructed,

Costumes fit, and sound checked.

Muscle memory juiced, scripts memorized.

When live theater was Covid-cancelled,

the team was stung but determined

not to crumple.

After inhabiting

O’Neill’s brilliantly scarred world

for so long, why deprive

appreciative audiences

of storied New York actors?

The company’s collective resolve,

helmed by Artistic Director Charlotte Moore

and Producing Director Ciarán O’Reilly,

morphed into an online sensation

the last week of October, 2020.

The production, starring

the singularly gifted Robert Cuccioli

and bottled-lightning cast

was an endorphin rush to view, even on a laptop.

It virtually electrified

my bleak quarantined days,

floored critics and slayed the viewing public.

More than 6,000 viewers tuned in.

It was a New York Times Critic’s Pick:

“Powerful…a hearty serving

of digital theater

that nearly matches

the real thing…

a production with

such chemistry and pep

that it stands as a reminder

of those pre-pandemic theater days of yore.”

Lightning is about to strike twice.

In the flesh this time.

You have from now

until April 17 to witness

what the fuss was all about.

Some people may not be ready

to mingle with the theater public.


We all have our tolerance thresholds.

Although I’m vaccinated and boosted,

I still mask-up

in stores, museums, theaters and restaurants.

Some theaters,

including the Irish Rep and The Public,

require proof of being boosted,

in addition to having the first two jabs.

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), who was expelled from Princeton University and dropped out of Harvard after one year, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), who was expelled from Princeton University and dropped out of Harvard after one year, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s,

O’Neill labored over a cycle of nine plays

about a New England family.

He disdained theater’s commercialization

and worried that his sweeping drama

would be corrupted posthumously.

Tragically, he destroyed the manuscripts.

One was accidentally left behind:

A Touch of the Poet.

The work, completed in 1942,

is the first of

O’Neill’s nine-play cycle.

It’s a tragic story laced with humor

about the Irish immigrant experience

in the New World.

It tracks the family of the tempestuously

haughty Cornelius “Con” Melody,

proprietor of a seedy inn and tavern

in 1828 Boston.

Debt-laden fabulist Con (Cuccioli)

identifies himself as a landed gentleman

and war hero.

He’s neither.

The play has had four Broadway productions,

having premiered in October 1958,

five years after the playwright’s death.

O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936.


It’s not really about the legendary scribe.

It’s about the production.

And the actors.

The author and Robert Cuccioli at Lincoln Center's 9/11 20th anniversary remembrance
The author and actor Robert Cuccioli at Lincoln Center's 9/11 20th anniversary remembrance

In my humble opinion,

Cuccioli is one of the finest actors

in the theater community.

He personified bad cop Javert

in Les Mis, and crushed the leading role

in Broadway’s 1997 Jekyll & Hyde.

He departed the production

after nearly 900 shows.

It opened in 1997,

but Cuccioli had owned the role

off and on

since 1994

when he created the part in Houston.

The show had long legs,

closing in 2001.

His pedigree reveals

scores of film and television

bona fides along with

vast theater experience.

The Long Island native attended

St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset and

St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York,

where he earned a finance degree.

Before landing on the stage,

he was improbably

an E.F. Hutton financial consultant!

But it’s not just

his acting acumen that impresses.

He’s a genuinely mensch-y guy.

When his high school honored him in Spring 2000

with a “Robert Cuccioli Day,”

I tagged along

and wrote a Newsday feature

about that experience.

He was graciously down-to-earth

with the smitten students,

reminiscing about his time spent

in those hallowed halls.

Which brings me back to A Touch of The Poet.

If you heed my advice

and consider attending a performance,

you will be amused, engaged

and highly entertained.

Cuccioli et al will not disappoint.

The reverb of the denouement delivers

a knock-out punch that will resonate

long after New York’s

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

winds its way

along Fifth Avenue.


Janis and the author at Effy's Cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including



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