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Illyria

The early years of The Public Theater and its founder Joseph Papp are depicted in Richard Nelson’s latest biographical drama in the style of his recent plays.

The Company in a scene from Richard Nelson’s “Illyria” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The founding of the New York Shakespeare Festival must have been a magical moment beset with many problems. Writer/director Richard Nelson has attempted to commemorate this event with his new play, Illyria. Presented in the conversational, low-key style of his recent Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels, Illyria will be of most interest to theater insiders as there is a great deal of name-dropping of first names that won’t be readily known to the general public. The famous characters depicted in 1958 include founding producer Joe Papp, director Stuart Vaughn (later artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre), actress Colleen Dewhurst, stage manager Bernie Gersten (later associate producer of The Public Theater), and composer David Amram.

Set in the spring and summer of 1958, the play written in three scenes covers an audition, a birthday luncheon and the closing night of NYSF’s Twelfth Night in Central Park. Stuart Vaughan, Papp’s long time director, auditions actress Mary Bennett, girlfriend of stage manager John Robertson and Vaughan’s choice, as well as Papp’s wife Peggy, returning to acting after having just had a child, for the role of “Olivia” in the NYSF’s Twelfth Night. Two months later, Colleen Dewhurst (who had performed a memorable Kate in Taming of the Shrew for the NYSF the previous summer), gives a 37th birthday party for Papp to which Stuart and Bernie arrive unexpectedly. The final scene takes place in August immediately after the closing night of Papp’s production of Twelfth Night when Stuart has defected from the festival, Joe is out of his day job, and Bernie may be fired from being executive stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.

Nelson’s strong suit in recent years has been to move large groups of people around and talking as intimates which is well evident in the new play. However, as director he has kept the tone “conversational” as he has called it in his last seven plays, in which no one raises their voices and all seem almost to be whispering. This proves to be very un-theatrical and makes the play seem like there is no dramatic event. Among the characters who are still famous on stage, it is difficult to reconcile his Joe Papp and Colleen Dewhurst with their later personas.

Fran Kranz as press agent Merle Debuskey, John Magaro as producer Joe Papp and Will Brill as stage manager Bernie Gersten in a scene from Richard Nelson’s “Illyria” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

As the author (who was born in 1950) was not around at the time of the story, all of the dialogue must be assumed to be invented and it is anyone’s guess as to whether they are depicted accurately. Offstage characters are referred to by one name, needing the audience to immediately identify George (George C. Scott), Clurman (director/teacher critic Harold Clurman), Ted (Phoenix Theatre founder T. Edward Hambleton) or Houseman (producer/director John Houseman) as the play does not help out with these names. You might be able to follow the play without recognizing these personalities, but the play assumes that you know who they are or were, circa 1958.

The conversations revolve around the topics of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s poor finances in 1958, Vaughan’s defection to the Phoenix Theatre which was paying a living wage while the NYSF was not, the choice of Mary Bennett (Vaughan’s choice) or Peggy Papp (Papp’s choice) to play Olivia, George C. Scott’s defection to the movies in his unnamed first film, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee appearances by both Papp and Gersten which has put their jobs in jeopardy, and whether Free Shakespeare in the Park can survive without charging admission. However, none of these conversations are allowed to erupt into real conflict. We are placed in the center of the action as though we are in the room where it happened, but the dialogue remains on the level of chit-chat rather than life or death threatening decisions. The problems never seem to be resolved and the play moves on to its next topic.

Blake DeLong as composer David Amram, John Sanders as director Stuart Vaughan, Max Woertendyke as stage manager John Robertson and Naian Gonzalez-Norvind as actress Mary Bennett in a scene from Richard Nelson’s “Illyria” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

So too the characterizations are very bland for people who are famous for bigger than life personalities as well as people who are not unknown entities. John Magaro’s Joe Papp seems too quiet and retiring, while Rosie Benton’s Colleen Dewhurst seems more than a little colorless as the famous actress. The other performers appear to have chosen one or two personality traits and run with that: Fran Kranz conciliatory as press agent Merle Debuskey, John Sanders pragmatic as director Stuart Vaughan, Kristen Connolly loyal and self-effacing as actress Peggy Papp, Emma Duncan’s understanding production assistant Gladys Vaughan, Will Brill facetious as stage manager Bernie Gersten, and Blake DeLong as trouble-making composer David Amram. Max Woertendyke as stage manager John Robertson and Naian González-Norvind as actress Mary Bennett are too bland to have much in the way of personalities, though Bennett may be a composite of several actual performers of the period.

The three minimalist settings by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West are much in the style of their productions for Nelson’s three Gabriels plays: the necessary furniture all in the center of the stage when the play begins and then the actors place the tables, chairs and piano where they need to go. Hilferty’s costumes look lived in without having much personality. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is suitable for the three sequences without being magical even for the final, moonlight scene.

Richard Nelson’s Illyria takes its name both from the setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but also from a letter of appreciation from an actor who had appeared in Papp’s production: “Illyria is a mythical country where strange and wonderful things happen…” The founding of the New York Shakespeare Festival may have been such a time but this new play has not yet captured that atmosphere.

Illyria (extended through December 10, 2017)

The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (433 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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