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It’s understandable that the Public Theater would want to give itself a well-deserved pat on the back by commissioning playwright Richard Nelson to write a drama about its early history. Unfortunately, the work that has resulted proves more frustrating than edifying, more obscure than enlightening. Those not already familiar with the characters and situations Illyria depicts are unlikely to get much out of it beyond a sudden desire to make an appointment with an audiologist.
That’s because the drama, like Nelson’s celebrated The Apple Family Plays and the similar cycle that followed, The Gabriels, is in the so-called “conversational style,” in which he directs the actors to speak in a normal tone of voice rather than projecting. We’re warned about this upon entering the theater and even offered free headsets. Take them up on it. I sat in the third row and still couldn’t make out much of the dialogue.
But while Nelson’s approach in the two earlier play series effectively conveyed the physical minutia and emotional undercurrents of families dealing with personal and political issues, it doesn’t work at all here. Ironically, the real-figures being portrayed — including New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joe Papp, actress Colleen Dewhurst and composer David Amram — make far less of an impression than the playwright’s fictional creations.
Composed of three scenes, the intermissionless work is set in 1958 when Papp and his colleagues are attempting to present free Shakespeare productions in Central Park. They face numerous problems, including the unions and the city’s Park Department pressuring them to charge for tickets, competition for talent from such rival theaters as the Phoenix and the soon-to-be-built Lincoln Center and actor George C. Scott’s tardiness.
There’s no need to worry that the actors aren’t getting enough to eat, since Nelson seems to have developed a fixation with presenting food onstage. That was appropriate for the earlier works, since so many family discussions are conducted during meals. But here it just seems silly, with the characters chowing down on sandwiches and soda, a lavish potluck lunch and shots of whiskey. The performers wind up doing as much eating, serving and cleaning up as emoting.
Not that there’s much to emote about. The dialogue is so low-key and matter-of-fact that it fails to engage our attention. (And I’m speaking as someone who knows the story well and has even met several of the real-life figures.) The dialogue is realistically naturalistic, but catty references to Scott’s drinking problem and actor Ellis Rabb’s vanity are hardly a substitute for drama.
Endless stage time is devoted to such trivial plot elements as a young actress, Mary (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), and Joe Papp’s then-wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly), also an actress, auditioning for the role of Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night. “One big reason I started this theater was to give Peggy a place to act,” a peeved Papp (John Magaro) tells the director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), who clearly prefers the younger woman for the role. The rivalry between Papp and Vaughan is another recurring theme, although not one that proves very interesting. “Since when did he start putting ‘Joseph Papp Presents’ all over every fucking thing?” a peevish Vaughan asks at one point.
Many of the characters, such as press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), stage manager John Robertson (Max Woertendyke), Papp’s friend and colleague Bernie Gersten (Will Brill) and the guitar-strumming Amram (Blake DeLong), barely register. The same is true even of the formidable Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), although it’s nice to know she apparently put on a fine spread; and of Papp himself, who doesn’t come across here as the force of nature that he was. Then again, it’s hard for an actor to put that across when directed to speak in little more than a whisper.
Subject matter so potentially fascinating makes it all the more frustrating that Illyria proves so tedious and lifeless. There’s so little passion exhibited that it ironically only makes you wonder how the New York Shakespeare Festival ever got off the ground.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Rosie Benton, Will Brill, Kristen Connolly, Blake DeLong, Emma Duncan, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Fran Kranz, John Magaro, John Sanders, Max Woertendyke
Director-playwright: Richard Nelson
Set designers: Susan Hilferty, Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Presented by The Public Theater
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