This Is ILLYRIA, Ladies and Gentlemen



For the last third of a century, a concerted effort has been made to have children become aware of theater. Perhaps those who become entranced by CATS might someday graduate to CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Take ‘em to THE LION KING today and tomorrow they’ll want to see George Bernard Shaw’s ANDROCLES AND THE LION.

In that spirit, every young boy and girl who plans to be a performer must see ILLYRIA at the Public Theater.

You should, too.

Through Richard Nelson’s new play and production, everyone can see what real acting is – meaning acting that doesn’t seem to be acting at all.

Even before you get inside the Anspacher, the ticket-taker will let you know why tonight will be different from all other nights. “This is a ‘conversational style’ play,” she’ll warn you. “If you need a hearing device, get in line over there.”

Last Sunday, many heeded her warning. Even with 10 solid minutes before curtain, the line was longer than one ever seen at the box-office of PERFECT CRIME.

Still, Nelson was taking no chances. Hanging from the flies were no less than 14 microphones.

They would be needed – for a while. As the quiet-voiced Jessica Lange has proved in her three Broadway appearances, if you speak softly, the audience will listen more carefully; after a while, most everyone will adjust, become accustomed to the low volume and will ultimately not be aware that the sound level is comparatively low.

Nelson’s been using this approach for a while, starting with his own APPLE and GABRIEL plays. It’s most welcome again here, for Nelson gets a natural, unadorned and unassuming performance from each of his 10 actors. Everyone is speaking as if he or she were actually in a dining room, greenroom or park. No one is grandiose, broad or out-for-laughs. There’s no dreaded “indication,” for a scratch of a nose may only be what the performer actually needs at that moment and not a carefully calibrated move. We once again see that underplaying is a much better choice than over-the-top. Call this Theater-of-the-Matter-of-Fact.

The word “Illyria” of course immediately brings to mind the country in which the shipwrecked Viola and Sebastian land in Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT. However, Nelson deals only peripherally with both the classic comedy and its playwright. Instead, this is the story of the very arduous growing pains that Joe Papp had when trying to jump-start The New York Shakespeare Festival. He wanted to make the Bard’s comedies, tragedies and histories free to anyone who cared to come.

Much of the 110-minute intermissionless play takes place in 1958 at a dinner table when Papp, his then-wife Peggy and plenty of theatrical-luminaries-to-be were tyros. Fittingly, Papp is at the head of the table – well, if you consider the south side the head. One could argue that Colleen Dewhurst, sitting alone atop the north side, is at the head.

(Whatever the case, both of them would wind up as the heads of important organizations: Dewhurst, the president of Actors Equity, and Papp, of course, the producer of The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater.)

It’s supposed to be a birthday celebration for Papp, but from the outset, actor John Magaro shows the man as a world-weary, sleep-deprived and doleful director who appears to have the weight of Heckscher Auditorium on his shoulders.

Papp’s pal Stuart Vaughan arrives and is immediately called “Mr. Broadway” because he’s already staged two plays uptown. Sure, they’d only averaged 25

performances, but Vaughan was still flying substantially higher than Papp. That’s why he offers Vaughan the reins to the Festival and the chance to reign.

Even the casual theatergoer knows that Vaughan said no – which may have been the biggest mistake of his career. Papp became a legend in his own lifetime while Vaughan’s final job was directing in a sixty-seat theater 55 miles from Broadway.

Still, Nelson, like all the best playwrights, knows enough to have Vaughn give damn good reasons why he won’t take the job and why Papp’s dream theater cannot possibly succeed. John Sanders delivers his catalogue of objections in a lucid and convincing manner. After all, the only Papp achievement to this point was “a one-week OTHELLO” – and his planned summer production of TWELFTH NIGHT was hardly a certainty.

They don’t even have enough copies of the play for each of the actors – and The Strand, that haven for used books, was already on East 12th Street.

Vaughan says the purpose of OTHELLO was “to get our work seen so we can move on.” Move on, he has. Can Joe Papp?

Gladys, Vaughan’s wife, was caught between a boulder and a hard place because she was also Papp’s assistant. To whom will she be loyal? Emma Duncan shows she makes her decision from both her brain and heart.

Peggy is the kind of wife who knows her husband all too well and will dare to contradict him when others won’t. Yet Kristen Connolly shows that when Papp’s future seems unflinchingly bleak, she’ll be there to provide the most comfort.

Naian Gonzalez Norvind plays Mary Bennett, an aspiring actress who’s there on a pass because she’s dating someone with the company. The lass must be the most innocent-looking actress in the city, right down to her youthful ponytail. And yet, from the second scene to the third — which is only a matter of a few months — she shows that Mary greatly grows.

Fran Kranz brings great intelligence and steely-eyed dignity to Merle Debuskey. When Papp asks about that night’s contributions from the audience, he knows just how to deliver Nelson’s perceptive line “We’ll count it later.” (Translation: “Not much.”) If Debuskey in life were as smart and courageous as he is shown here, Samuel J. Friedman shouldn’t be the only press agent with a Broadway theater named for him.

The solid Blake DeLong is David Amram, Papp’s choice of composer — although there’ll be a tense story there, too. Rosie Benson may be the best of them all in playing Colleen Dewhurst, whose face shows she can size up a situation with less information than everyone else needs.

Nelson triumphs in every way. He knows that if he starts Scene Three with cast members tossing orange leaves onto the stage, we’ll immediately know that autumn has arrived. It’s also enough to start us wondering if TWELFTH NIGHT did play its intended summer engagement.

There’s plenty of dramatic irony here for those who know their dramatic history. Utah, from where Peggy hails, is mocked for its dearth of theatrical culture. But within three years of ILLYRIA’s time-frame, The Utah Shakespeare Festival was founded en route to winning a 2000 Tony Award as the outstanding regional theater of the year.

Similarly, Papp experiences roadblocks from the city planners who are far more interested in starting its own outdoor Shakespeare Festival on the grounds of the then-planned Lincoln Center. Papp pooh-poohs the future theater as an elitist place where people would pay UNpopular prices. Little does he know that he will run Lincoln Center Theater for some of the ‘70s.

Papp isn’t the only one in ILLYRIA who’d have a future there: Bernard Gersten has been on the Lincoln Center scene for more than 30 years. From the sincerely affable way that Will Brill plays this just-starting-out stage manager, Gersten himself would be as surprised as anyone that he’d rise so high.

Names from the past abound: Fritz Weaver, Ellis Rabb and even T. Edward Hambleton. For those who’ve wondered how Staats Cotsworth pronounced his first name, here we find that it was a homonym for “states.”

Papp’s statement near play’s end — “I’m not going away” – has a nice double meaning. No, he wouldn’t, for in less than a decade he’d be a New York institution. More to the point, he still hasn’t gone away, for The Joseph Papp Public Theater is alive and very well on Lafayette Street.

Budding actors and sophisticated theatergoers aren’t the only ones who’ll greatly profit from seeing ILLYRIA. Fledgling directors who are thinking of opening their own theaters should hasten to it as well. They may think twice when they see how nearly impossible success is – and yet they might emerge more determined than before that achieving greatness is a possibility. Just as Papp did so much for so many, Richard Nelson may well do the same with the next generation of theater artists.