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Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through December 10, 2017
The cast of Illyria (photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Richard Nelson—who was written elegantly about the most inelegant era in our country’s recent history with his cycles The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels—has now turned to a previous era in Illyria, a dramatization of the bumpy beginnings of Joseph Papp’s free Shakespeare Festival.
In his signature quiet and conversational way, Nelson provides three glimpses of Papp and colleagues dealing with the fallout, in 1958, when they began undergoing internal strife and butted heads with Robert Moses and the New York City Parks Department over keeping summer Shakespeare free for all theatergoers.
There are three scenes: Papp’s director Stuart Vaughan auditioning a young actress and Papp’s own wife Peggy, the latter returning to acting after their child’s birth, in the Festival’s office; defector Vaughan arriving at a tension-filled dinner at the apartment of actress Colleen Dewhurst and actor George C. Scott; and a post-park performance discussion among Papp and colleagues.
As usual, there’s much to admire in Nelson’s artful writing in which a group of like-minded people is sensitively presented. But despite the backstage intrigue, there’s a decided lack of urgency and drama in Nelson's relaxed tone: it’s telling that the most compelling characters are George C. Scott and Robert Moses, neither of whom appears in the play.
Nelson directs assuredly, but his generally fine cast is upended by John Magaro’s pallid and unfocused Papp. Also disappointing is that Rosie Benson, a resourceful and winning actress, has little to do as Colleen Dewhurst: she deserves a meatier part, and if Nelson returns to these characters in a future play, one can only hope that she will get one.
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
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