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I resisted Daniel J. Travanti’s reeling, drunken Con Melody for most of Arena Stage’s A Touch of the Poet. You shouldn’t.

The actor is giving a decidedly risky performance as Con berates his wife for loving him, his daughter for hating him, and the world for treating him like the buffoon he is. Travanti, familiar to audiences as the no-nonsense Capt. Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues, pushes the schizoid nature of this outwardly ridiculous, casually cruel, relentlessly self-deluding character way past the point of no return.

But somehow, point or no, both the actor and the character do return, sweeping perfectly sensible objections about human nature and familial fealty before them (also questions of voice and accent in a production so filled with mid-Atlantic Irish brogues that it might as well be taking place just off the coast of Greenland). Never mind. The performances come through, as does Eugene O’Neill’s schematic, highly unlikely tale of redemption.

As conceived by the author, Con is a New England innkeeper who thinks he should be royalty. Alas, he’s living in a young nation that believes so little in royalty that it’s about to elect Andrew Jackson president. Con can’t even convince his own daughter, Sara (Fiona Gallagher), that he’s worthy of being treated like a gentleman, so what chance has he with Boston society?

So he has retreated into the bottle, spending his evenings with rowdy buddies, who hang around his tavern only for the free drinks, and his mornings preening at his mirror and cursing Nora (Tana Hicken), the long-suffering wife he married only because she was pregnant. Now that their love child, Sara, is of marriageable age, he’s urging her to trap Simon, a sick boarder she’s nursing back to health upstairs, in much the same way.

Con’s clearly not going to be an attractive guy, even under the best of circumstances, but he can be played in ways that make him theatrically grand and amusing. Most performers would lay on the Irish charm with a trowel and do their snarling under their breath. Not Travanti. Abetted by Michael Kahn’s staging—which pays more attention to the characters scurrying to get out of the innkeeper’s way than to the man himself—the actor plays Con as an inveterate apologizer whose insults seem to blurt out of him inadvertently in a voice every bit as sweet as the one he uses seconds later to atone for them. This Con is soft, weak, and annoying. And not very lovable.

Which means that for the longest time, you assume Hicken’s Nora is just plain out of her head. How can she defend this jerk, much less adore him? He’s clearly a buffoon. But she’s so solid and sure in her devotion that despite Sara, despite the drunks in the bar, despite Simon’s mom (Robin Moseley, sweeping regally into the play like some Shavian heroine come to whip these whimpering O’Neillites into line), Con comes into focus in her wifely eyes.

The play won’t catch up ’til its final scene, when it’ll take an authorial bump on the noggin to bring Con into line with the man who, by that time, the audience has finally seen he can be. Still, there’s satisfaction to be had in watching the melodrama play itself out in Kahn’s spare, gray-on-gray production, catching unawares characters who haven’t seen its twists coming.

Gallagher’s Sara moans and sobs way too much when things aren’t going her way but proves to be her mother’s lovestruck daughter in one scene at least, blissfully sniffing her fingers after losing her virginity. TJ Edwards and David Marks make quick impressions as outsiders who try not to get too mucked up by the mud this family kicks up. And the others are fine, apart from a tendency to overdo the Irish-lout stuff—always a temptation in O’Neill and nearly always indulged in.

The box office at Studio 1019—which is what Scena Theatre is calling the dilapidated 7th Street storefront it has commandeered for its latest production—is manned by a polite but armed and camouflage-attired soldier. He is civil but dismissive as he escorts ticketbuyers to their seats for Euripides’ Women of Troy (“they call it a show, I call it propaganda”), and he does not participate in any of the rapes, murders, and other atrocities that ensue.

Call him a good Greek. His comrades in arms are monsters—scurrilous winners of a flat-out, no-holds-barred conflict that found them temporarily on the side of the gods—while the Trojan women they torment are noble, dignified, and much too proud to march silently into slavery. Such is the way with Greek tragedy, even when it’s being staged as guerrilla theater in a desiccated warehouse with TV monitors offering cryptic commentary. Black and white. Victor and victim.

The opportunities in Scena’s production for campy excess are considerable, but Robert McNamara’s sharp, effective staging sidesteps most of them as it makes vivid use of the bare-brick-and-planking interior, with its railless balcony and bombed-out appearance. Though the mood is serious and the performances pitched just the other side of fury, the director is not above having some fun with his own reputation and that of leading lady Kerry Waters. They’ve done enough Beckett together that having her emerge from a trash can at the start of the play qualifies as a visual pun. Still, she’s a ferocious Hecuba, cursing the Greeks and marshaling Troy’s resistance, and when Kenneth McLeish’s translation gives her an evocative line—say, about the deaths of her sons (“One by one, I watched the Greeks harvest them”)—she invests it with both pain and poetry.

Carter Jahncke’s brisk, businesslike Menelaus, Tricia McCauley’s punk-goddess Cassandra, and Jewel Orem’s screen-siren Helen are also effective. Ditto the minimalist lighting managed by Lynn Joslin, and David Crandall’s sound and video design, which features toga-clad children playing with toy boats in a wading pool as Zeus and Athena debate killing the Greeks as they sail home.

If for some reason you missed American Century Theater’s riveting production of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed when it premiered last May, the gods have smiled and given you another shot. Don’t even think of letting the production get away again.

And for heaven’s sake, get to the Gunston Arts Center early, so you can watch the company at its loosest and most engaging. That’s when the actors appear to be talking shop rather than performing, though of course the production’s already well under way. Things will come together later with a satisfying snap, but the rehearsal stuff is most intriguing when it’s least structured and most of the audience isn’t really paying attention. If you resist the natural impulse to chatter before the director arrives and the lights go down, you’ll be privy later to some nifty in-jokes.

The premise is that the director (Charles Matheny doing a deft Orson Welles impression) has called a rehearsal of King Lear but distributed scripts for an adaptation of the Melville epic to see if it might be a stageworthy addition to the company’s repertory. The principals have all had their scripts overnight and presumably memorized their lines, but the rest of the cast is going to have to wing it, and they’re all devising blocking and staging devices on the fly. “See what you can come up with,” he tells the lighting designer, who uses everything from flashlights to fluorescents thereafter. Ladders become masts, benches whaleboats. When an actor wonders what Welles wants him to do, the imperious director fixes him in a baleful glare. “Do?” he bellows. “Stand six feet from me and do your damnedest.”

Though there’ve been minor changes since May—a new scene at the top of Act 2, a few new cast members, and some tweaking of staging (mostly to reflect Welles’ cinematic habit of shifting camera angles in midscene to refine his audience’s focus)—the evening is as surprising and muscular as it was in its previous incarnation. Director Jack Marshall still delights in blurring the line between performance and real life, and by the time he has the whole cast working in tandem, transforming wooden benches into whaling boats and a whirling scaffold into the vortex that sucked the Pequod under, patrons will have happily surrendered to the improvisatory illusion.

The troupe even gets the great white whale up there onstage, in a transportingly persuasive effect involving not much more than a gravestone-shaped piece of wood, a couple of lights, and a Sensurround rumble.

You’d be nuts to miss it.CP