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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.


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.


Understandable.


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.


Confession:


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 BroadwayWorld.com

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