The imaginary dukedom of Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but while Richard Nelson’s Illyria does center around the 1958 New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of that play, this one is really more about the politics and the egos of theater than the art of theater, not so much about how the sausage gets made as about whose name is emblazoned over the door of the sausage factory. (Spoiler: It’s always Joe Papp.)
Presented by the Public Theater, the play illustrates three scenes from a crucial period in the prehistory of that institution: the early days of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the project that launched the theatrical career of Joseph Papp (John Magaro)–stage manager, sometime director, impresario, producer, and subsequently founder of the Public. Dogged, pugnacious, often abrasive, but remarkably effective, Papp changed the theatrical landscape of New York, no matter how unlikely that outcome seemed in the spring and summer of 1958, when Illyria is set. Any number of obstacles plagued the Central Park production, before and during its run: a conflict with Robert Moses’s Parks Department; the hit to Papp’s reputation after he took the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee; insufficient funds; the defection of the director, Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), to the for-profit theater world; Papp’s insistence on casting his then-wife, Peggy (Kristen Connolly), as Olivia; chaotic Central Park neighbors that included an accordion competition; and, last but certainly not least, Papp’s combative and self-glorifying personality. (In reality, not all of these events happened precisely concurrently, but the conjunction well serves the story’s purposes.)
A great portion of the play involves the internal ego-jousting of Papp and his friends/ cronies/ rivals: Vaughan; press agent and Papp sidekick Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), whose fifty-year career as a Broadway press rep might be worth a play in itself; composer David Amram (Blake DeLong); and Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), at the time a stage manager with the Stratford Theatre, who would later run the Public with Papp until a falling-out in the 1970s. And while the final scene, set on the “stage” (a collapsing flatbed trailer trucked in semi-legally, in one of the play’s best recounted Papp stories) after the closing performance of Twelfth Night, gives some human and narrative payoff in showing the simplicity and solidity of the human connections and friendships of theater, and the high of reaching an audience, the road there is long and paved with an awful lot of repetitive, testosterone-fueled bluster.
As a character study of a man who’s almost wilfully blind to the emotional needs of others and to the “soft skills” of management, but who nonetheless accomplishes a great deal, it’s effective, and Magaro wonderfully captures both Papp’s magnetism and how infuriating he must have been to work with. Kranz, as the softer-spoken man behind the throne, also gives a layered, subtle performance; he’s an exceptionally active listener. (The play, across the board, under Nelson’s direction, is solidly acted, as well as cast with actors who have remarkable physical resemblances to the real people they play, from Rosie Benton as Colleen Dewhurst to John Sanders as Vaughan.) But the main arc of the play doesn’t give much more than a snapshot of Papp’s personality; there’s not a lot of focus on how, or why, Papp became who he was and did what he did.
Underneath that main arc, though, move some very interesting questions, questions that still bedevil us today in NYC and the theater world: Who is theater for? How do we reach the broadest audience possible but still pay artists a living wage? (Or, how do we remove barriers to access for both potential audience and potential artists?) How does the urban landscape remain a vibrant communal space, safe both from “blight” and gentrification? (One thread follows the development of Lincoln Center, portrayed here as a safe, gentrified “palace of the arts” created by the rich for the rich–ironic, then, that both Papp and Gersten ended up running Lincoln Center Theater later in their lives.)
Another thematic question that is sadly equally relevant sixty years later: How does gender play in to–and in many cases handicap–theatrical careers? The women in the play include: Papp’s wife, Peggy, who’s just had a baby and is thinking about giving up acting. She ends up playing Olivia–at Papp’s insistence–but everyone who sees her seems to ask first, and only, about the baby; she also ends up bringing lunch for all the men at her own audition. Mary Bennett (Naian GonzÃ¡lez Norvind), gets to audition for Olivia mostly because she’s dating Papp’s stage manager (Max Woertendyke); she then is sort of “poached” into a new relationship by Amram–but in both cases she’s a hanger-on, a subject of exchange and bragging rights among the men rather than a person in her own right. Stuart Vaughan’s wife, Gladys (Emma Duncan), is Papp’s assistant; she seems to be the most competent one in the bunch but only really gets consulted when Papp wants her to take sides against her husband.
But where the battles for real estate and urban vibrancy are being fought, passionately, by the characters, the gender issues seem unrecognized within the play. This is, perhaps, historically accurate–or accurate to Papp’s character at least–but it’s dramaturgically frustrating. I can’t help wishing that Nelson had done a little more to give the women characters some reason to be in the piece at all–or, honestly, had left them out entirely rather than have them so solely focused on the men around them. Colleen Dewhurst, for example, seems really to be in there solely to talk about her then paramour, George C. Scott. True, the play’s stories about Scott’s antics mine some of the richest comedy. But the play tends disappointingly to replicate rather than illuminate the gender dynamics it depicts.
Illyria runs to December 10, 2017. For more information about the production, click here.