Theater review by Helen Shaw
Richard Nelson, one of the Public Theater’s resident playwrights, has written and directed a play about Joseph Papp, the swaggering founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public itself. Reading about Papp makes you swoon for the adventure and audacity of it all, and it must have been tempting to paint him as a saint. Yet Illyria is no smoke-blowing hagiography. Instead, Nelson imagines Papp (John Magaro) as a grade-A mope who radiates contempt for everyone—friends, staff, anyone who works for the city—while sulkily demanding their loyalty. The play may be unpleasant, but at least it isn’t puffery.
This dull drama takes place in the late '50s, when the still-scrappy Festival was on the brink of collapse. Joe squabbles with his publicist, Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), about whether to keep the shows free—what would he make of this production’s $75 ticket price?—and with director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders) about whether to cast Joe’s wife, Peggy (Kristen Connolly). His legendary battle with Robert Moses over Central Park is described, in tones of disbelief, by people who were at key meetings to other people who were at those same meetings. It’s dramatically inert, though the characters talk about important issues like civic space and the corrosive power of government ideologues. (The women mainly gaze adoringly, though they presumably have ideas about that stuff too.)
Nelson’s direction is less sure-handed than it was in his more accomplished play cycles about the Apple and Gabriel families. He wants his work to be naturalistic and unfussy, but winds up with enforced murmuring; the young ensemble is barely audible even from the second row. Worse, you can sense the strain it puts on the actors to speak in voices that can’t be heard, and many of them turn in mannered, uncomfortable performances. Illyria has only one good scene, in which Joe and his best friend, Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), sit on a broken-down stage in Central Park, waiting for the rain. At least until Joe ruins it by talking about a dream he had (oy), Nelson simply shows us two friends hoping the skies will clear. We know that everything will be all right; we know that Shakespeare in the Park will be a juggernaut through the decades. But for a moment the project seems fragile, which makes us love it all over again.
Public Theater (Off Broadway)). Written and directed by Richard Nelson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission. Through November 26.
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