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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
The Last Match
Written by Anna Ziegler; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Performances through December 24, 2017
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
A scene from The Last Match (photo: Joan Marcus)
A tennis match as a grand metaphor for life isn’t the most original idea, but playwright Anna Ziegler puts some topspin on it in The Last Match, which takes place during a U.S. Open semi-final between Tim Porter, the world’s greatest player who’s contemplating retirement but making one last run, and Sergei Sergeyev, a young hotheaded Russian talked about as a future champion.
As they play a hard-fought, five-set thriller, the men get on each other’s nerves, admit to their own nerves, and flashback to their off-court lives, which mainly consist of Palmer’s all-American wife Mallory, a tennis pro who gave up her career to marry and give him children (the latter of which was harder than they expected), and Sergei’s feisty fiancée Galina, whose brimming self-confidence helps balance Sergei’s rattling man-child antics.
As a tennis fan, I found it interesting that Ziegler’s players are at least partly based on real pros: Tim seems modeled after Roger Federer, the effortless, beloved G.O.A.T., while Sergei seems a cousin of a younger and more distracted Novak Djokovic. The men’s better halves are stock characters, but Ziegler’s zippy way with dialogue allows all four to play an entertaining doubles match at the same time that the men’s singles battle is going on.
With Tim Mackabee’s clever set showing off the U.S. Open court and the couples’ off-court battlefields, Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs with persuasive finesse, easily juggling the men’s shotmaking with their verbal shots and flashbacks. Of course, her exemplary cast is The Last Match’s ace in the hole. Wilson Bethel’s Tim and Alex Mickiewicz’s Sergei trade witty barbs while they impressively duke it out on the court, while Zoe Winters’ Mallory and Natalia Payne’s Galina are perfect foils who also provide a needed perspective to the players’ battle royale.
The Last Match has its faults: Ziegler, who otherwise has the court lingo down, lets her players serve at wrong times during the match, a huge unforced error on her part. But there’s humor and drama in abundance, which makes her play a down-the-line winner.
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