Seeming less unfinished than crudely unpolished, Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” is a rough draft for the Bard, a play with as many flaws as similarly named characters. With only one summer more in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 10-year Shakespeare marathon, Timon’s time has come, and director Brian Kulick has staged a surprisingly watchable production. With a visual panache that effectively distracts attention from the text’s glitches, Kulick and actor Michael Cumpsty even make convincing theater (or very nearly so) of the play’s motionless second half.
It’s doubtful that many in the audience would mind, or even notice, some trimming. The festival’s staging comes on the heels of a laudable airing two seasons back by the National Actors’ Theater, surely a historical quirk for one of Shakespeare’s least-performed works.
A tragedy with some comic flourish, “Timon” charts the descent of its ridiculously optimistic title character into despair, madness and suicide. Parable-like in its simplicity and containing scant evidence of the genius of “King Lear” (to which it is often compared in theme), the play is at odds with modern taste in characterizations more allegorical than natural.
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Timon (Cumpsty, a veteran of the NAT production) himself is two-dimensional; unfortunately, one dimension is reserved for each half of the play. As the story opens, the wealthy Timon (here dressed, as others, in Mark Wendland’s Gatsby-esque summer linens) is treating a gaggle of sycophantic hangers-on to a feast and lavish gifts. Promising a valuable stallion to one friend, the grandiosely generous Timon says, “He’s yours because you liked it.” One of the play’s faults is immediately clear: Timon isn’t so much a real character as a symbol of idealistic loyalty and faith, so blind to others’ greed and hypocrisy that he comes off, unintentionally, as utterly foolish. His two-faced friends aren’t the only ones who lack sympathy when he ultimately fails audiences just might, too.
His downfall comes late in the first half, when Timon is told by his servant and truest friend, Flavius (Henry Stram), that money has dried up and creditors are circling. Believing himself to be “wealthy in friends,” Timon seeks loans from his pals, who, of course, turn him down with any number of excuses. Despairing, Timon takes to the wilderness, where he goes mad and rants misanthropically the second dimension of his two-dimensional character to anyone who’ll listen. The second half of the play essentially is a succession of such encounters.
There’s also an awkward subplot about a valiant soldier, Alcibiades (Jack Stehlin), seeking leniency from hypocritical senators for an accused murderer, and Alcibiades’ subsequent banishment (to the same wilderness where Timon retreats) for his efforts. This storyline, fitfully inserted into the main plot, is bound to confuse, regardless of what Kulick or anyone else does.
Wendland has designed a large, rectangular trailer with movable tin walls that can be sectioned into any number of configurations as Timon’s home. As with just about everything else on the spare performance space a banquet table, various chairs the trailer is on wheels, and cast members push it here and there to suit the plot’s needs. The efficient prop is especially effective when black-suited creditors set about dismantling it.
Cumpsty is pretty much hog-tied by Timon’s one-note personality or personalities, given the character’s quick turnaround midway through. The actor is particularly convincing in the angry second half, as he nastily entreats the soldier to spill humanity’s blood and a whorish singer (Susan Pilar) to spread disease. Pilar does well in her jazzy musical number, while Stram, as the true-blue Flavius; Sam Tsoutsouvas, as the hard-edged realist Apemantus; and Geoffrey Owens, as one of the sycophants, stand out in a generally solid cast.
Wendland’s costumes are divided into identical black suits for the money-grubbing businessmen and cream-colored suits of 1920s vintage for the wealthy elite. Although the outfits make thematic sense, the uniformity fails to hold interest. Black-and-white monotony doesn’t serve the production any better than it does Timon or the play.