Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
America's roots obsessed Eugene O'Neill. Among them, Greece, Africa and the Orient all contributed to his plays but the Ireland of his parents was dominant.
It is this we meet in "A Touch of the Poet," which opened a five-week run Tuesday night on the Eisenhower stage, with Jason Robards, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Kathryn Walker and Betty Miller in the pivotal parts under Jose Quintero's direction.
Considering the script's challenges, the production is substantial but neither moving nor powerful. While Quintero has excised some long expositions, he could still cut more deeply. The cast, at least subconsciously, seems aware that its "Poet" does not yet play.
The play is one of the two which survive from O'Neill's ambitiously jected 11-play cycle, which actually had ballooned from four. The deeper he delved into the New England character, the further he insisted on probing and, after starting them in the 1930s, he destroyed all but this and "More Stately Mansions" in the '40s.
By 1953 he was dead and a cast headed by Helen Hayes, Eric Portman, Kim Stanley and Betty Field presented "A Touch of the Poet" under Harold Clurman's direction. The set was by Ben Edwards, who recreates it for the Eisenhower.
Such background is needed for its appreciation in the late '70s, for by now O'Neill is not simply a play-wright seeking to hold audiences but a literary figure studied, examined and probed as a giant.
Director Quintero, who now has staged nearly a dozen of the O'Neill canon, has wisely cut some of the exposition which still remains more than enough. Ruthless time reveals both the failings and strengths of O'Neill's granite style. We, too, have become impatient with endlessly detailed backgrounds.
Robards plays Con Melody, who served Britain against Napoleon to become a major, has drifted to Massachusetts dragging his Irish brogue, background and a murder charge with him. Still fancying himself a gentleman with a fine mare to ride, he has bought a tavern, where wife Nora (Fitzgerald) and daughter Sara (Walker) are virtual slaves.
O'Neill's fascination lies in the conflict between the Irish of his own family tree and the Anglo-Saxon upper crust of Boston, a class struggle to which he returned again and again in his plays. He also employs the equivocations of character which make humanity so puzzling to the observant thinker: Why, after we rail against something and it is resolved, do we wish to go back to the way things were?
Quintero and company are more successful in the second act than in the first, though that one does allow for Betty Miller's well-acted scene as the rich youth's mother with the girl who will marry him. O'Neill wrote her single scene beautifully and it will echo through Sara's life in "More Stately Mansions."
Robards clearly has been working on his critical second act but has much to do yet for the first, where his Con has neither the charm of the Irish nor the class of the Anglicans he would ape. This major character is not fully there but then O'Neill hasn't made it an easy one.
Fitzgerald and Walker are expressive as Nora and Sara. Milo O'Shea's old corporal is more stage Irish than ideal. Further curring may improve matters for those mor einterested in a play than in the personal O'Neill literary saga.