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A CurtainUp Review

I kept having this dream these past few weeks. While rehearsing Twelfth Night. I suddenly find myself in a place -- I don't know where. I'm lost. A beautiful place. Trees. Grass. A lake. Like this. It's like this park. Where the city noise is just 'over there.' It's all mixed together. All one thing. Like here. But I know I've never been here before. I'm lost. Then someone comes by . . . And I say, excuse me, sir, where am I? He turns to me and says, "This is Illyria."
— Joe Papp, on the night when his' dreams of their free Shakespeare Festival have collapsed.
The company (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
As I took my seat at the Public's Anspacher Theater to see Richard Nelson's new play Ilyria and saw the large dining table piled high with chairs on the otherwise bare stage, it felt a little like a return to his Apple or Gabriel socio-political family plays. But no. . . according to my press kit, Nelson, who is indeed this world premiere's writer and director, is now taking us back to Manhattan in 1958. And the events we follow represent part of the early history of the vibrant theater complex of which the Anspacher is a part — a chapter that chronicles the threat to the Public Theater's founding father Joe Papp's dream of giving New Yorkers a chance to see Shakespeare's works performed without having to buy a ticket.

While Mr. Nelson invented the Apples and Gabriels of Rhinebeck, his plays about them closely reflected and coincided with critical events in recent times. On the other hand, the characters in Illyria are all based on real people and facts. That's not to say that this is a docu-drama. The playwright has freely applied his imagination to the conversations between these real people (all but 3 most of whom are dead). He's also omitted and changed some details along with some dates and facts to suit his concept.

His directorial approach is very much in the non-stagey, realistic mode of the Apple and Gabriel plays, with the actors to speak conversationally and not always easy to hear by those sitting in rear rows. The play opens with the large cast moving the chairs and other props into place for the first scene at the Heckscher Auditorium on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street. Their interactions here and in the next scene at actress Colleen Dewhurst's apartment, are interspersed with preparing, serving, eating and clearing up. And yes, the food served is real, enough so for the odors to permeate the theater (Since I didn't have lunch before the matinee I attended the aroma made me quite hungry).

For many theater goers the only characters whose names will ring an instant bell will be Joe Papp and perhaps the actress Colleen Dewhurst. Unlike the Rhinebeck plays, this is essentially a backstage story that doesn't pull you in right away. But hold on, by the time everyone shows up at Colleen Dewhurst's apartment you'll have a clearer grasp on who all these people are and how they will help or hinder the Shakespeare Festival's fight to survive in spite Commissioner Robert Moses's opposition to using "his park" for free theater productions.

The dialogue in the second and third scenes becomes sharper, the conflicts more intense and timely — especially given arts institutions nowadays under budget cutting assaults by the powers that be in Washington. The actors too get more into their roles. John Magaro, who in last year's revival of The Front Page portrayed the anarchist who has a date with the hangman with apt desperation, tends to play down Papp's complex, full of fire and theatricality persona. However, his interpretation turns out to be just right for the best and rather melancholy final scene when the Festival's and Joe's future are a big question mark.

John Sanders, Max Woertendyke and Blake DeLong give capable perfornmances the Festival's director Stuart Vaughn, stage manager John Robertson and musician-composer David Amram. But the standout male player is Will Brill who doesn't show up until the final scene as Joe's friend Bernie Gersten who became Lincoln Center's executive producers until his retirement in 2013. (Fact: And Papp ran that organization's Vivian Beaumont Theater in the early 70s) .

Of the women, Fran Kranz and Kristen Connolly make solid impressions as press agent Merle Debuskey and Papp's actress-wife Peggy (she was actually the third of his four wives). The lovely and talented Rosie Benton doesn't get much to do as Colleen Dewhurst, except to serve the second scene dinner and clear the dishes. Having all the women handling those chores while not one of the men makes a move to help gives a an authentic picture of male-female roles in the '50s. This 50s feel is further enhanced by Susan Hilferty's costumes.

Naturally, seeing this story as the Public Theater is enjoying greater success than ever and Shakespeare In the Park is an established annual theatrical treat makes Illyria a breacing reminder that dreams can indeed still come true.

Postscript: If seeing Illyria leaves you eager to know more about Joe Papp, I highly recommend Helen Epstein's Joe Papp, An American Life. It's still available, as is my review.
Curtainup's reviews of the Apple and Gabriel Plays
That Hopey Changey Thing
Sweet and Sad
Regular Singinging

#1 Hungry
#2 What Did You Expect
#3 Women of a Certain Age

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Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Cast: Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst), Will Brill (Bernie Gersten), Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp), Blake DeLong (David Amram), Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughan), Naian Gonzelez Norvind (Mary Bennett), Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey), John Magaro (Joseph Papp), John Sanders (Stuart Vaughan), and Max Woertendyke (John Robertson).
Scenic design by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton
Sound design by Scott Lehrer
Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, without intermission
Public's Anspacher Theater at 425 Lafayette St (212) 967-7555
From 10/22/17; opening 10/30/17; dlosing 11/26/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/28/17 press preview
world premiere

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