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Byrne, back to battle O'Neill

The actor settles in for another physically and emotionally grueling bout with the playwright's work, this time delving into 'A Touch of the Poet' on Broadway.

November 20, 2005|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

New York — ON paper, Gabriel Byrne should be happy right now. He's back on Broadway, starring in a play he loves by a playwright he reveres. The production, a Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet," allows him to live at his Brooklyn Heights town house, see his kids regularly and exercise his considerable stage muscles while waiting for the release of two new films he says he's quite proud of. So why does he seem like he's nursing a nasty hangover of philosophical despair?

"This is a tremendously physical play," Byrne says, looking handsomely rumpled in a black V-neck sweater at a table in the studio where he and his director, Doug Hughes, have just completed a rough afternoon of scene work. "But there's another level of energy that's drained from you, and that's the emotional energy. You can't hide with O'Neill. You have to go there, or not go there at all. It requires everything from you physically, emotionally and mentally. I worry about how I'll be able to sustain it because we're only in the second week of rehearsal and I'm already beginning to feel a tiredness in my bones."

If playing an alcoholic is hard on an actor, playing one in a garrulous O'Neill psychodrama must be murder. Fortunately, Byrne, who doesn't mind all the wobbly poeticizing, is an experienced hand. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2000 for his performance in "A Moon for the Misbegotten" as James Tyrone Jr., a character every bit as hard-drinking as the bullying, Byron-quoting patriarch he portrays in "A Touch of the Poet."

Byrne's not the first actor to try this exact double shot of O'Neill on Broadway. Jason Robards scored Tony nominations for his work in groundbreaking 1970s revivals of "A Touch of the Poet" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," both of which were praised for revealing the visceral emotion of O'Neill's demanding art.

Robards' precedent makes Byrne's task all the more challenging. Yet according to Cherry Jones, who was Byrne's costar in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," he needn't worry about maintaining his intensity. "I've heard that Jason Robards, who I hold above all others, would be brilliant on certain nights, but maybe would phone it in on others. Gabriel was right to the wall every time. He's very exposed and raw, and he seems to feed off the brilliant, messy, convoluted, even grotesque aspects of O'Neill's difficult language."

"A Touch of the Poet," which opens Dec. 8 at Studio 54 on Broadway, was first conceived by O'Neill in the mid-'30s as part of a never-to-be-realized 11-play cycle about 200 years in the life of an American family. He finished a draft of the play in 1939 and the final version in 1942, a period in which he also completed his autobiographical masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Though the works diverge in tone and method, both grapple with the painfully contradictory figure of O'Neill's father, and both were produced only posthumously.

At the center of "A Touch of the Poet" roars Cornelius "Con" Melody, an Irish immigrant tavern owner in early 19th century Boston who's lost in the memories of his former military and amorous glory. Given to parading around in his old Duke of Wellington cavalry uniform, tyrannizing his family and browbeating the drunken customers who refuse to worship at the shrine of his romanticized self-image, he has been described as what O'Neill's father would have become had he not discovered his profession of acting. Through the embattled engagement of his waitress daughter to the scion of aristocrats who don't want anything to do with rowdy barkeeps, Con is forced to confront the way he's been conning himself about his elevated status in America.

Reviewing the 1977 Robards production for the New York Times, Richard Eder offered a verdict that's been pretty much the same ever since the work's debut: "Not one of his greatest plays, but it has greatness in it. It is a difficult greatness to pry out fully in performance."

Looking as weary as his star, Hughes fully acknowledges the directorial hurdles yet finds something compelling "about the extravagant, myth-like way in which O'Neill approaches one of the paradoxes of life: The people closest to us -- family, loved ones -- can be both reprehensible and indispensable to us."

As Byrne puts it in his hypnotic Irish lilt, "The questions O'Neill grapples with are the ones that make you look in the mirror and examine who you really are and who you pretend to be. What mask do you have on, and what mirror are you looking into? And what do you see in the mirror of other people's faces?"

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