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How bad can a play be and still be good? Eugene O’Neill tested the limits many times, perhaps most exasperatingly in the long-winded, top-heavy “A Touch of the Poet,” whose first act (there are four) consists almost entirely of clumsy exposition that could and should have been dumped. The results are all but unwatchable in anything short of a first-class production—which is just what the Irish Repertory Theatre has given “A Touch of the Poet” in its latest webcast. Perfectly cast and staged by Ciarán O’Reilly and brilliantly produced by a virtuoso team of designers and editors including by Sarah Nichols, the show’s miracle-working video editor, it is a shining model for any company putting its work online during the COVID pandemic.
A 19th-century costume piece, “A Touch of the Poet” is the story of Con Melody (Robert Cuccioli), a Byron-quoting soldier turned alcoholic innkeeper who has frittered away his life passing himself off as a to-the-manor-born gentleman. This pretense is a continuous slap in the face of Nora (Kate Forbes), his loyal but long-suffering wife, who forced Con, a man of colossal vanity, to marry beneath his imaginary station by getting pregnant and has lived with the consequences ever since….
When done poorly, “A Touch of the Poet” is all but unendurable. When done like this, it’s still too long but powerfully compelling nonetheless, and I’m tempted to say that it it is helped by being watched at home. At no time do any of the nine members of the cast yield to the temptation to overplay their hand: Their performances are in close keeping with the intimacy of this kind of presentation, and Mr. Cuccioli is vastly superior to anyone else I’ve seen take on the role
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The trailer for A Touch of the Poet: