Eugene O'Neill's plays often run long, but at their best-Long Days Journey Into Night-nearly every minute counts.However, A Touch of the Poet, currently in revival by Friendly Fire at the 14th Street Theater, needs the touch of an editor or dramaturge instead. O'Neill's final completed play (part of an abandoned cycle) seems for the first twenty minutes more like a freshman effort-a litany of endless exposition about the background of the as-yet-unseen British soldier turned drunken New England tavern owner Con Melody, played by Daniel J. Travanti of TV's Hill Street Blues fame.
Even after Melody arrives, the first two acts are repetitive and fail to develop any characters beyond flat caricatures, which often leaves Travanti and the rest of the cast straining to look busy or to inject drama into the proceedings. Much of the time characters are giving speeches to the middle distance, not speaking to each other-O'Neill set the play in 1828 and the characters go on at length about Andrew Jackson and about the Battle of Talavera in 1809, where Melody found glory (before a downfall brought on by womanizing, dueling and drinking). Yet these speeches have little symbolic resonance and Travanti's decision to play Melody as overbearing but also physically stiff, trapped in his own past works only sporadically, alienating the audience as often as it enhances the character.
Fortunately, O'Neill finds his footing in Acts III and IV. Melody's self-delusions about his gentlemanly ways and his abusive behavior towards his long-suffering wife Nora (Ellen Crawford) and feisty daughter Sara (Tessa Klein) create a series of confrontations, coming to a head over Sara's love for the wealthy Simon. (We never see Simon, a Thoreau-like writer whom Sara has nursed during a recent illness.) Sara-and Klein-especially comes to life after she lets her hair down, literally and figuratively, pursuing her goal in a way that reveals her to be more like her father... much to her own dismay. The final scenes in which Con tries to shake free of his past while Sara looks to her future are poignant and occasionally powerful. If only it hadn't taken so long getting there.