PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Touch of the Poet

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Touch of the Poet Given the turbulent dissonance going on in Cornelius Melody's tavern nigh on to three hours in A Touch of the Poet, it is not easy to overlook the author's ironic intent in his choice of surname.
Gabriel Byrne; Doug Hughes; Byron Jennings; Ciaran O'Reilly; Emily Bergl; Kathryn Meisle; F. Murray Abraham; Jill Clayburgh & Sarah Paulson; Matthew Morrison; Steven Pasquale & Laura Benanti; John Patrick Shanley; Amy Irving.
Gabriel Byrne; Doug Hughes; Byron Jennings; Ciaran O'Reilly; Emily Bergl; Kathryn Meisle; F. Murray Abraham; Jill Clayburgh & Sarah Paulson; Matthew Morrison; Steven Pasquale & Laura Benanti; John Patrick Shanley; Amy Irving. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The blare and blather of the customers and the management boiled and bubbled again on Broadway Dec. 8 when Eugene O'Neill's classic play parked itself down at that recently reclaimed and retheatricalized watering-hole known as Studio 54.

You'd think, with the aptness of the location, that the opening-night party would be held at Tavern on the Green, but no! Roundabout Theatre Company opted for their regular black-box ballroom at the Millennium Broadway Hotel. The gloominess was not entirely inappropriate, come to think of it, but the spirits were flowing and, pretty soon, airborne.

Gabriel Byrne is the calling-card for this new revival, every inch a matinee-idol performance—even to the point of making his entrances in a profile almost classically chiseled. He struts and swaggers through the drama, living the grandest of illusions until his own booze fails to fuel the fantasies he has created for himself in this drab bar outside Boston. His long day's journey into night is quite specific: July 27, 1828. This is Byrne's second time on Broadway, his second time as one of O'Neill's misbegotten and his second time following a Tony-nominated Jason Robards performance.

"I saw a production of it in 1988 with Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave, and I read it a few times," he said, but he does really see an easy link between "Con" Melody and the comparably bedeviled James Tyrone Jr., who haunted two of the three plays O'Neill left to be posthumously produced: Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. "They're two different tormented men—I guess there are connections between all of O'Neill's characters, for sure—but the themes he's writing about in Poet are the same themes in Misbegotten: the search for love and identity."

A Touch of the Poet didn't really come into its own until the Robards revival of 1978 with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Kathryn Walker. "I first saw this play going to spec out the competition that year," recalled Doug Hughes, who directed this version. [His da, Barnard Hughes, won the Best Actor Tony that year for Da over Robards.] "I don't have vivid, vivid memories of it, but I know that it deeply intrigued me and that I admired it." It is hard to say why Poet took so long to find its touch. The original 1959 Broadway production was cast creatively—but a little too combustibly for its own good—with Eric Portman, Helen Hayes and Kim Stanley—and their backstage dramas diminished what they did on stage, it has been suggested. Hughes has his own theory about the play's delayed reaction. "First of all, it's a much larger company than Moon for the Misbegotten or Long Day's Journey, the two most-produced ones. We do occasionally get the huge company of Iceman Cometh out there, but I also think it's a hard play to classify. That's one of the things I really love about it. It doesn't fit neatly into a category, and I think the fact that it's such a wild animal. It's filled with low comedy, with great incident, with fantastic plot-reversals. These are things we don't ordinarily associate with O'Neill, and it's just further proof of the sweep of his genius as an artist."

The play does make certain demands on its audience, but Hughes applauds that fact. "I want them to kinda rock back and think, 'What the hell just happened?' A play that is filled up with life this much is an invitation to each member of the audience to project their own experience on to it. To my mind, the play is such a kitchen of life—how difficult it is, how seldom we get what we want when we want it, how much time we waste pretending to be something we're not. All those things create such a phenomenal piece."

Hughes has his next projects lined up like dominos: "I fly out tomorrow to Chicago to spend some time working in an embryonic stage on a brilliant musical version of that John Steinbeck novella, The Pearl. Lou Rosen is the composer, and Art Perlman is the librettist. Then on Monday morning I start rehearsing Eileen Atkins, Ron Eldard and Jena Malone in Doubt. Adriane Lenox, who plays Mrs. Muller, is sticking around. That company gives its first performance at the Walter Kerr on the 10th of January, and on the 12th of January I start rehearsing John Patrick Shanley's new play, Defiance."

Dearbhla Molloy, the Welsh actress whose named is spelled phonetically Dervla in her Playbill bio, plays Byrne's maddeningly optimistic wife, and it's not her first time at putting up that brave front. "I did this play once in Boston, but I hadn't played the part in the same way," she said. "It's the only time I did O'Neill." She did a Roundabout Juno and the Paycock and was one of the Tony-nominated sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa.

Similarly, Emily Bergl had prior training in the role of the defiant daughter. "I dreamed of playing this role for years," she admitted. "It's an amazing part because it's one of the few ingenue parts that have all the colors of a leading lady. I played it in community theatre in Iowa, and I dreamed of playing it ever since, but to do it on Broadway with Gabriel Byrne and Doug Hughes—I never imagined such things were possible for me. I was working on another show at the Roundabout—Fiction, last summer—and I was talking with the artistic director and suggested that they do it. I had no idea they were already planning to do it, so I said, 'Oh, you ought to see me when you start auditioning.' And I went and auditioned like anyone else, and I got it. There is a god, and she is kind."

The barflies, given to gigs and fits and undulating stances, were believably presented by all shaky hands, particularly by the creative Byron Jennings, who played Cornelius' chief crony as if he had rarely ventured beyond the tavern walls. "The character speaks to me," he said. "I understand. I think he's an Horatio kind of character—plus just the experiences he has had in his life are fascinating to me. I think he's a unique mixture." Carolyn McCormick, Jennings' wife, looked ravishing in a low-slink of a red gown as she nodded to compliments for the reviews of her show at the Atlantic, the double bill of Harold Pinter's Celebration and The Room. "I haven't read the reviews, but I hear they're good. The plays are really interesting. The juxtaposition of the two is really good because one is very dark and very serious, and the one I'm in is not."

Kathryn Meisle, a scene-stealer of long standing, is put to the test by her one scene as a high-brow potential in-law who visits the low-life tavern setting and is abruptly bussed by Byrne. "Everyone thinks the kiss would be my favorite part, but it's really not," she admitted. "I think the whole thing is my favorite, just because it's such a challenge. It's actually harder than a big part. You have to fill it out a lot. You just have this one shot. It's not, like, 'Oh, don't worry. I'll fix it in Act II.' You don't get an Act II."

As it is, she walked away to applause on opening night—the challenge well met and, reportedly, not an uncommon phenomenon. John Horton also scores in his single scene as her stuffy solicitor. "You wonder whether to bring on something that will make a huge impression or to treat it as a part that's going to continue for the rest of the play and suddenly it's curtailed," he said. "I know one is supposed to say it, but this is really a gem of a company, and Doug Hughes is the best possible director, and Gabriel is the best possible leading man to work with. It comes from the top, from Doug and from Gabriel."

Karen Ziemba caught the play but skipped the party, being a working girl these days. On Dec. 12, at the Shubert, she will emcee A Wonderful Life (as in the 59-year-old Yuletide staple). "Actually, we made up a name today—Olive Sandborn. Sheldon Harnick said that was all right," she beamed. The musical that lyricist Harnick and the late Joe Raposo wrote for Broadway is finally getting there—miracle on 44th street!—albeit, for a one-night-only benefit for The Actors' Fund of America. Naturally, it's dream-cast, with Brian Stokes Mitchell doing Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey), Judy Kuhn doing Donna Reed (her first perfect-wife role, Mary Bailey); David Hyde Pierce doing his wingless guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), and—my favorite—The Sopranos' Dominic Chianese doing Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore at his crankiest).

Other actors' fun: Ronn Carroll and Phylicia Rashad as George's parents, Michael Berresse as his brother, Chuck Cooper as their absent-minded Uncle Billy, Marian Seldes as Mary's mom, Philip Bosco as the boss angel, and Bedford Falls denizens like Marc Kudisch, Nancy Anderson as the town slut (Gloria Grahame, of course), George S. Irving and Well's wonderful Jayne Houdyshell.

Harnick was one of three Pulitzer Prize winners attending this drama by the all-time Pulitzer king—O'Neill won three during his lifetime (Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie and Strange Interlude) and a fourth four years after his death (Long Day's Journey Into Night). The other two present were the most recent: I Am My Own Wife's Doug Wright and Doubt's John Patrick Shanley.

The latter, still reeling from the play at the party, didn't mince words about his appreciation of the piece. "This is the best production of an O'Neill play that I've seen in my life," he declared happily. "I more than loved it. It's one of my two favorite productions of anything I have ever seen in my life." [I had to ask. The other is Harold Pinter's No Man's Land with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.] "This blew me away on every level. The play is a revelation. It is, maybe, one of O'Neill's greatest plays. I don't think anybody knew that."

Shanley is girding up to go among them again, following Doubt with Defiance, a Marine boot-camp drama which director Hughes will premiere Feb. 28 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I space at City Center (from whence—knock knock—cometh Doubt). Defiance tried out in July at the Powerhouse Theatre on the grounds of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, with top-lining Oscar winner Chris Cooper, Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Dana Delany. None is available for the New York run, but Jeremy Strong and Trevor Long will reprise the roles they originated. Chris Chalk has taken over the Santiago-Hudson role, and the lead will now be played by Stephen Lang, who, you may recall, displayed a formidable, hard-nosed, Tony-nominated military persona in A Few Good Men. The role of his wife has yet to be cast.

The timing of the play's arrival could signal a second consecutive award-fight with The Pillowman's Martin McDonagh, whose new play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, arrives only the day before at The Atlantic Theater, also stacked with a full compliment of good actors; characteristic of McDonagh's skewed view of things, it's about a terrorist grieving over the assassination of his cat.

There was a discernible sense of serenity about Jill Clayburgh in the audience and at the party. "I'm done!" she exclaimed by way of an explanation. Translation: her Roundabout play, Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, wrapped it up on Sunday, and she's free again—if not for very long: she starts rehearsing Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park with Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson, Tony Roberts and director Scott Elliott "the day after the day after Christmas" for an opening at the Cort on Feb. 16.

Her darlin' daughter, Lily Rabe of the last Steel Magnolias, and Sarah Paulson of the last Glass Menagerie, accompanied Clayburgh. The girls recently played sisters in Colder Than Here and were planning on Sunday to visit their mother in that play, Judith Light, who's filming "a divorce comedy" in the city right now with Robert Klein called Ira and Abby. (They play Jewish analysts on the Upper West Side in this script by Kissing Jessica Stein's Jennifer Westfeldt.) Rabe is also drawing a little film work—currently Aftermath and, come February, Mostly Martha—while, she insisted, she's shopping around for another play. Paulson has already found her play, but she has to go to Los Angeles to do it on Dec. 27—a little number by Anton Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard, which she will do at the Ahmanson, starting on Valentine's Day, with Annette Bening, Alfred Molina, Jason Butler Harner and Roy Dotrice ("I think that'll cut mustard, don't you?").

Katie Finneran, the myopic, Tony-winning, ding-a-ling in the last Noises Off, was having to introduce herself all over again, having lost her white-corn blondeness to auburn red (the residue of Broken Bridges, a film she just finished in Atlanta with country-music singer Toby Keith). Theatre-wise, she knows what's coming next. "We can't say, but we're really happy to be here," chirped in her agent from the sidelines. (From Katie on the Q.T.: It's "a great, great, great play"—and one which she'll do here this summer, either Broadway or Off-Broadway. The venue has yet to be determined.

Fresh from Poland (if that's possible) was Laine Robertson, the bio based playwright (Lady Day at Emerson's Bar, Nasty Little Secrets and the recent Woman Before a Glass) who just had a play done there. He laughed when asked "How does it play in Polish?," but they seemed to have loved him in Warsaw. Right now he's working on the book for an original musical by the Smokey Joe's Cafe duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

F. Murray Abraham was loitering about, waiting in line—a long and congested line—to congratulate Byrne. "Gabe and I did a picture in Spain a couple of years ago called The Bridge of San Luis Rey—it was a big picture with Robert DeNiro and Kathy Bates, but it didn't seem to go anywhere—so I wanted to say hello. He's a wonderful actor—a really good, essential O'Neill actor, isn't he?—really black Irish." An Academy Award winning Salieri in Amadeus, Abraham has just authored a book for Faber and Faber's Actors on Shakespeare series on how to play his favorite role—believe it or not, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I read something from it at the 72nd Street Y, and they seemed to like it, but I'd rather do the acting." To that end: "I just finished a picture in Tunisia, and now I'm going to be doing The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta at the same time for the Theatre for a New Audience. That will be later on this year, and we will do it in London as well. This has never been done before."

Late-arriving from her own Tony-winning workout in Doubt, Cherry Jones cheerfully joined the Byrne receiving line. (Both were Tony-nominated for their own memorable O'Neill outing, A Moon for the Misbegotten, five years ago.) "I bet he does every O'Neill he can—he should," she said. "I just spoke to Arthur Gelb, who was just raving and raving and raving. He and his wife, Barbara, have produced with Ric Burns and written a major documentary on Eugene O'Neill for the "American Experience" series." The Gelbs, who wrote a defining 758-page biography of the playwright (O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo), were plainly proud of their adventure in the new medium, and the passion showed. At the slightest provocation, he broke into a hard-sell soft-shoe: "It's a documentary for PBS, which will be shown on March 27 with an all-star cast. We have everyone from"—and the list of celebrated talking-heads commenced with Christopher Plummer, Zoe Caldwell, Liam Neeson, Tony Kushner and so forth.

Another, more-newly-turned author is agent Margaret Emory, who's written for Watson-Guptill Publications, Ask an Agent: Everything Actors Need to Know about Agents. (Well, hopefully, not everything.) She was in attendance, sidekicking for Dulcina Eisen, who came up with Byrne's understudy (Colin Lane) and talked Ciaran O'Reilly into stopping running Off Broadway's Irish Repertory Theatre long enough to come uptown and do a brief, but believable (!), Irish gig on Broadway.

Other first-nighters included Steven Pasquale and Laura Benanti (both of whom triumphed in a benefit concert revival of The Secret Garden Dec. 4, columnist Maureen Doud, Matthew Morrison, conductor Paul Gemignani, Amy Irving with son Gabriel, Warren Leight, composer Stephen Flaherty, set designers Tony Walton and John Lee Beatty.

There's something about A Touch of the Poet that brings out the niceness in exes. Gabriel's ex, Ellen Barkin, was in attendance with their 16-year-old daughter Romey, and her husband, Ron Perelman, wrapped in a rope of pearls for easy identification. "Gabriel is a great stage actor," she said. One couldn't help but remember back to the 1978 opening night when the ex-Mrs. Robards, Lauren Bacall, lead the standing ovation for another great stage actor. A nice memory.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben