I interviewed the late producer Joe Papp (1921-1991) many years ago and there was more energy in five minutes of our talk than is projected in the entire play “Illyria,” with a pathetically phlegmatic performance as Papp by John Magaro within the writing and direction by Richard Nelson. There is little in the thin, softly spoken play to indicate the dynamism that made Papp one of the theater’s most important producers with a profound legacy of contribution to the arts.
Nelson is probably the wrong writer to have tackled the drama about Papp and his colleagues, especially in a staging at the Public Theater, which Papp founded. Nelson is known for his intimate conversational pieces, such as “The Gabriels” and “The Apple Family Plays.” His specialty is depicting people sitting around quietly gabbing, presumably with insightful revelations.
On this occasion, set in 1958, Papp is shown discussing the future of Shakespeare in the Park, casting choices, differences of opinion and McCarthyism, and celebrating his birthday at a party. Rarely does he raise his voice. There is a discussion as to whether one may have to charge something instead of providing Shakespeare free. John Sanders as director Stuart Vaughan does leave in a huff at one point after an argument. The final scene is set in on the temporary stage, the Belvedere lawn, in Central Park (leaves sprinkled to indicate the park), and at least that has the wistful nature of foretold eventual success.
But in the main all sit around mumbling in the small stage area before an audience on three sides. Even sitting close one has to strain to hear, especially if an actor has a back turned. To be fair, one has to acknowledge the playwright’s apparent intention to show an intimate slice of life in th history of building the Papp contribution and the role of others working with him. A bit of nostalgia does peek through, but the result is mostly boring. Papp deserves better, particularly on his own home stage.
For the record, cast members play real-life characters in the Papp circle at the time—Kristen Connolly as Peggy, Papp’s then actress-wife; Fran Kranz as press agent Merle Debuskey; Emma Duncan as Papp’s assistant Gladys Vaughan, the director’s wife; Blake Delong as musician and composer David Amram; Max Woertendyke as stage manager John Robertson; Rosie Benton as actress Colleen Dewhurst, who went on to renown; Will Brill as Joe’s friend and stage manager Bernie Gersten, who later achieved success with the Lincoln Center Theater, and Naian González Norvind as Mary Bennett, a young actress.
There is still a need for a more convincing portrait of Papp in all his glory, revving up interest, doing battle and showing his foresight in bringing important work to the stage, as well as incisive depiction of his personal life. I recall how passionate he was in talking to me during our interview about wanting to acquaint young students with Shakespeare. He was clearly a man with a mission, and every time I go to a production of the Public Theater I think fondly and respectfully of Joe Papp. I miss him in real life and I miss him in “Illyria.” At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed October 31, 2017.