Off Broadway Review: ‘Illyria’ by Richard Nelson

Richard Nelson directs his own surprisingly bland origin play about the birth pangs of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Illyria review
Joan Marcus

The tepid tone and low energy level of “Illyria” would have us believe that the birth of the New York Shakespeare Festival was a walk in the park – Central Park, that is, where Joseph Papp claimed the Delacorte Theater and laid the grounds for almost 60 years of free Shakespeare in the park.

Writer-director Richard Nelson has helmed “Illyria” like one of his own intimate domestic dramas featuring the Apple family and their neighbors, the Gabriels. Insofar as the writer presents producer Joe Papp and his close theatrical circle as a tight-knit and loyal family of friends and colleagues, that’s a smart way to approach the daunting subject matter.

In addition to Papp (John Magaro), the characters include Joe’s wife, Peggy Papp (Kristen Connolly), his friend and future partner Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), the erudite press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), and the actress and resident earth mother, Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton).

In three scenes that span the spring and summer of 1958, Papp and friends meet over modest pick-up meals and talk about this and that, but mostly about how to get their theater off the ground. The obvious staging problem is that group meals are not part of the theatrical gestalt, the way they are in Nelson’s Apple and Gabriel families. Colleen Dewhurst can put out cold cuts in the Upper West Side apartment she shares with husband George C. Scott and the gang can bring sandwiches to a planning picnic in Central Park. But the elaborate physical rituals and emotional investment in cooking and sharing a family meal that so brilliantly shape the Apple plays are entirely out of place here.

More critically, the only dramatic plot line in the play is the question of who Joe will cast as Olivia in “Twelfth Night” – the talented young actress who gives a nice audition piece or Joe’s own actress-wife. At this early stage of development, the fledgling company faced all kinds of real problems: finding patrons, raising money, forming an acting company, negotiating with the theatrical unions, navigating the city bureaucracy, and fighting with their nemesis, Robert Moses, the Parks Department commissioner.

Except for some testy infighting about whether or not to charge admission to the shows at the Delacorte – a real close call, as it turns out — Nelson doesn’t make much of these real historical challenges. He does show some savvy, however, about professional competition from Ellis Rabb’s well-received Phoenix Company and the new theater planned for Lincoln Center. So, as far as dramatic conflict, the play doesn’t totally flatline.

The real problem is with the tone-deaf performance style that Nelson has adopted here. The miscast John Magaro delivers his lines in a monotone and has none of Papp’s street-smart hustle and personal magnetism. But almost everyone falls into the stumble-and-mumble company style, which passes for naturalistic dialogue in Nelson’s own plays but does nothing for these characters. Except for the spark of life that Rosie Benton injects into the Colleen Dewhurst character, the lack of energy in this production is enough to knock you out cold.

Off Broadway Review: ‘Illyria’
Public Theater / Anspacher Theater; 275 seats; $75 top. Opened Oct. 30, 2017. Reviewed Nov. 2. Running time: ONE HOUR, 50 MIN.

A Public Theater production of a play in three scenes, written and directed by Richard Nelson.

Sets, Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Scott Lehrer; production stage manager, Theresa Flanagan

John Magaro, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, John Sanders, Emma Duncan, Blake DeLong, Max Woertendyke, Rosie Benton, Will Brill, Naian Gonzalez Norvind.