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Theatre in Review: Illyria (The Public Theater)

Fran Kranz, Will Brill, John Magaro. Photo: Joan Marcus

In his trilogies about the Apple and Gabriel families, Richard Nelson has perfected a kind of theatrical scrimshaw, etching tiny, yet teeming, worlds that are preternaturally accurate reflections of the state of the nation. Surprisingly, he applies this same technique in Illyria, which focuses on Joseph Papp, a titan of the American theatre, along with a supporting cast of larger-than-life theatre personalities. Lurking just offstage is Robert Moses, at the time the most powerful man in New York State, cast here as a troublemaker. Someday, someone is going to write a big, juicy drama about how Papp, the producer of a struggling theatrical troupe, outfoxed Moses, who tried to eject Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival from Central Park. (Papp didn't just win; he got the Delacorte Theatre built as part of the deal.) Right now, though, we have Nelson's sliver of a drama, which, even if it sometimes feels constricted, has its own fascinations.

Illyria unfolds during the summer of 1958, when the NYSF's fortunes were at a low point. As it begins, the company is on edge, because George C. Scott, cast as Jaques in a production of As You Like It, has been running amok at a student matinee, terrorizing misbehaving audience members into stunned silence. (The fact that Scott, always a handful, had arrived at the theatre only moments before his first entrance, under the influence, pales beside his behavior in front of his frightened young spectators.) Scott never turns up in Illyria, but Colleen Dewhurst, then his girlfriend, is on hand to assure everyone that, once you get used to him, Scott is really no trouble at all. The speech ends in a pregnant silence, since we know that the lady has in her future two separate, and equally tumultuous, marriages to Scott, both of which will end in divorce. Illyria is rich in such dramatic ironies, if you're up to speed on the characters.

Anyway, Scott's acting out is the least of Papp's troubles. As usual, NYSF is out of money. Stuart Vaughan, his in-house director, is moving on, hired by the Phoenix Theatre, the well-heeled Off-Broadway troupe that was also no stranger on Broadway. Papp has lost his day job as a stage manager at CBS, having invoked the Fifth Amendment before the HUAC. (Nelson's script barely alludes to the reason for his firing.) And Robert Moses, commissioner of the city parks, is trying to maneuver the NYSF out of Central Park by insisting that Papp charge admission to his productions. It's one thing to deal with the rivalries, jealousies, and anxieties that affect any community of artists; it's another thing entirely when a power broker like Moses is against you. Clearly, Papp and company are running out of time, and out of steam.

If Illyria has a central conflict, it's between Vaughan -- who, despite assertions to the contrary, is itching to break free -- and Papp, who, Vaughan accurately notes, has a way of turning every crisis into a drama starring himself. Around them swirl many ancillary conflicts. Peggy, Papp's wife, has just given birth and is seriously considering giving up acting, much to her husband's displeasure. (Papp's decision to force the casting of Peggy as Olivia in Twelfth Night, the next production, is a particular sore point with Vaughan.) Gladys, Vaughan's wife, works as Papp's assistant, finding herself eternally in the middle of their disputes. Mary Bennett, a young actress, moves between John Robertson, NYSF's stage manager, and the composer David Amram, making for some awkward social interactions. And Bernie Gersten, Papp's longtime friend -- currently working as a stage manager at the Stratford Festival in Connecticut, a heavily funded, star-driven enterprise that is a fairly universal object of scorn in this bunch -- is another victim of the blacklist, fighting for his job.

There's more than enough conflict here for an evening of big scenes, but, as usual, Nelson's approach is loose, laconic, and light on exposition. Seeing Illyria is like listening in on a private conversation; you have to figure out what's happening as you go. This was easier in the Apple and Gabriel plays, where audiences were presented with fully detailed imagined worlds. Illyria may be challenging for those not conversant with Papp's biography and the New York theatre scene at midcentury. Some of the play's background figures, like T. Edward Hambleton, the Phoenix's millionaire producer, or Walter Kerr, the theatre critic who was one of Papp's bĂȘtes noires, are hardly household names today. Sadly, this may even be true of Robert Moses or George C. Scott. Adding to the difficulty is the casual, throwaway performance style that Nelson long ago perfected, and which is given an extreme application here. In their pursuit of peak naturalism -- often muttering to themselves or speaking under their breath -- the actors are, too often, simply inaudible. Even with a forest of mics, placed over the stage by the sound designer Scott Lehrer, many lines of dialogue are lost. If you attend a performance with any coughers in the audience, you can expect to lose even more lines. Between the sometimes-arcane subject matter and the cast of low talkers, Illyria can become a chore to listen to.

Still, there's something authentically touching -- and strangely of the moment -- about Nelson's portrait of young theatre Turks struggling to find a platform in a city where power and money rule. Even as Papp struggles to preserve the NYSF, others are moving ahead with their careers. Scott is off shooting a film (possibly Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder). There's an especially tense bit when Vaughan, offered control of the NYSF -- on the theory that Papp has become too polarizing -- stuns everyone by saying what he has long thought was obvious, that the company was merely meant to be a stepping-stone to something greater. Papp offers the supreme sacrifice, only to have it thrown back in his face. Later, filled with contempt for Vaughan's plan to produce a season of Nobel Prize winners at the Phoenix, Papp, all but shouts, "I thought we are doing something different." He adds, thoughtfully, "Us. Do something different. Or just try to. Let the Shuberts pander all they damn want... We'd win just by trying. Let the rich guys build their palaces of art. And lock the gates at night."

Except for the audibility issue, the cast has many fine moments. John Magaro simmers effectively as Papp, revealing both his leadership and inexhaustible ego, yet making clear that, even at his most difficult, he is in pursuit of something much bigger than himself. As Vaughan, John Sanders' smiling, affable manner frays noticeably, causing a hush to fall over the room when he snarls, "I'm the director" at Papp, who has tried to interfere with an audition. Fran Kranz is a droll, poker-faced Merle Debuskey, who, when Papp complains that he never listens, coolly replies, "Listening doesn't mean that you have to agree." Kristen Connolly is touching as Peggy, who is deeply unsure which of the many threads of her life to follow, and, as Dewhurst, Rosie Benton presides genially over a tension-filled birthday party.

Nelson's productions are lightly designed: Here, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West provide a small collection of furniture pieces that, rearranged, set each scene. Hilferty's costumes and Jennifer Tipton's lighting are both tactfully done.

There's something deeply moving about the final scene, after the last performance of the summer, with Papp, Gersten, and Debuskey sitting outside as a storm threatens, grousing about Lincoln Center -- the plush palace of art that Moses is about to ram down the city's gullet -- and slipping into a casually melancholy rendition of the closing song from Twelfth Night. ("The rain, it raineth every day.") The scene is even more piquant if you realize that all three men will, in the years to come, end up at Lincoln Center, not necessarily together. It's a lovely moment, midcentury New York theatre perfectly poised on the cusp of the future. None of them can imagine what is coming for them; after all, who would believe it? -- David Barbour

(31 October 2017)

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