Aisle Seat: Eugene O'Neill's Poetic Dreams
Updated: Mar 4
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.
O’Neill’s brilliantly scarred world
for so long, why deprive
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.
including the Irish Rep and The Public,
require proof of being boosted,
in addition to having the first two jabs.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 BroadwayWorld.com