“The Papp-le Family Play”
If you’ve ever visited a free Shakespeare in the Park production, much less the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street, you probably know that the name Joseph Papp (born Papirofsky, 1921-1991) belongs to a New York theatre god. So one would hope that Illyria, a biodrama about this dynamic figure produced at the Public by one of its favorite sons, Richard Nelson, would be of first-rate quality, if only to avoid the wrath of Joe’s ghost for anything less. Maybe I'm wrong but I thought I heard some heavenly rumbling about this hellishly tedious work.
|John Magaro. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Like so many other theatre people who came of age in the Papp era, I was in awe of his aura and achievements. I had just begin attending Brooklyn College when his name became increasingly familiar in connection with the annual free Shakespeare Festival he had founded in 1954. Connections began to accumulate; his living a few blocks away from me in Brooklyn; a brief acquaintance with his daughter; the creation of Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, designed by my professor; classes with Papp’s closest director, Stuart Vaughan, and so on.
|Blake DeLong, John Sanders, Max Woertendyke, NaianGonzalez Norvind. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Over the years, more and more associations grew, as fellow students and those of my own (like Jimmy Smits) began getting their starts in various Papp enterprises. While I never knew him personally, and didn’t always love what he produced or directed, I always considered Papp, with all his flaws, an idol. Thus my great disappointment at Illyria.
During three scenes lasting an intermissionless hour and 50 minutes, Nelson tries to catch the 37-year-old Papp (John Magaro) in the midst of the various professional and personal issues swirling around him in 1958. In the first scene, for example, we see him preoccupied with what he considers the desertion of Vaughan (John Sanders), the gifted director of many Festival productions, for a more secure position at T. Edward Hambleton’s new Phoenix Theatre.
He also clashes with Vaughan over who should play Olivia in the upcoming production of Twelfth Night. One possibility is a young actress named Mary Bennett (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), who appears to be fictional, preferred by Vaughan; the other, is Papp’s wife, Peggy (Kristen Connolly)—listed in the program as Peggy Papp, not Peggy Bennion, her stage name—seeking to return to acting after giving birth to her daughter Miranda.*
|Emma Duncan, Naian Gonzalez Norvind. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
We also meet stage manager Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), Papp’s friend and stage manager, who would become a successful producer; Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), Papp’s longtime press agent; stage manager John Robertson* (Max Woertendyke), Mary’s live-in boyfriend; musician/composer David Amram (Blake DeLong), at the beginning of a distinguished career, whom the play suggests stole Mary from John; Gladys Vaughan (Emma Duncan), Stuart’s wife and Joe’s faithful assistant and support in disputes with her husband; and Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), the powerful actress who came to notice at the Festival.
|John Sanders, Fran Kranz. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Even Dewhurst, as big a personality as her stage and screen presence might suggest, fails to give this lethargic production a much-needed jolt. Perhaps the play might have woken up had her future husband, the rambunctious actor George C. Scott, appeared, instead of his misbehavior constantly being described.
Papp’s personal life with his Mormon wife’s Utah family is referenced, as is his being questioned by HUAC regarding his politics; it resulted in his taking the Fifth Amendment and losing his CBS job. There’s a lot of material about his trying to get city (Robert Moses, of course) and union support for his dream of a free Shakespeare theatre, a principle that also gets plenty of stage time. Naturally, the conversations invoke other tidbits of New York cultural life in 1958, including the incipient Lincoln Center project. But a string of anecdotes (even if amusing) and historical references do not a play--a good one, at any rate--make.
Nelson, who also directed, approaches the material in the same manner he used in his Apple Family and Gabriel plays, which I admired. The characters sit at tables and chairs in a space surrounded by the audience on three sides. In the first scene the furniture is arranged to suggest a rehearsal room at the Hecksher Auditorium on the Upper East Side. The second is dominated (as in The Apple Plays) by a dining table at Dewhurst’s Upper West Side apartment. And the third is outdoors, on a temporary stage at Central Park’s Belvedere Lake, where the Delacorte stands today.
|John Margaro, Blake DeLong, Naian Gonzaelx Norvind, Rosie Benton, Will Brill. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The dialogue and behavior seek to be ordinary, casual, and off the cuff, as untheatrical as possible; the speaking is often so low key that early reviews and word of mouth are causing the longest lines I’ve ever seen at the Anspacher to borrow assisted listening devices.
|Fran Kranz, Will Brill, John Margaro. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Given that so much of the talk is small talk, that “dramatic” moments arise very sporadically, and that the play’s narrative arc is so langourous, the play quickly begins to drag, a problem that only grows worse. Watching these theatre folk sit around Colleen Dewhurst’s dinner table and chatter away is more like sitting at a boring Downton Abbey dinner party among British gentility than a gathering of hot-blooded New York theatre people.
Those who know something of the history will certainly find it interesting to be in the presence of the personalities who created it but few will know what any of these people look(ed) like apart from Dewhurst or Papp, he mostly from the many photos of him in the media. And with the inside stories behind Papp’s problems expressed so naturalistically, even elliptically, I can’t imagine how those not familiar with the background could possibly find this dramatization interesting.
Watching the slow-paced, quotidian goings-on, and the dour seriousness of everyone involved, audiences must be wondering how such unexciting, commonplace folks could have been responsible for such monumental achievements.
Apart from Benton’s Dewhurst, who bears a vague resemblance to the original although of slighter build and thinner voice, none of the others come near to the people they’re playing. Most serious is Magaro’s morose, too young-looking Papp, lacking the impresario’s physical and emotional attractiveness, egotistic magnetism, and volatility.
|John Margaro, Fran Kranz. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Without an explosively passionate Joe Papp on hand, Illyria is a Papp-le play without a core. Thank goodness, though, for the enduring legacy Papp gave us, especially the grand theatre presenting this play.
*I don’t know if the casting conflict existed of if the fictional Mary Bennett is a cover for a real actress. However, the play suggests Peggy Bennion was cast because Papp, who ended up directing Twelfth Night when Vaughan left, insisted on it. Brooks Atkinson’s review of her performance declared: “Peggy Bennion’s Olivia, beautiful to look at, lacks the lyrical and musical movement of an idealized character.”
**John Robertson’s name may not be familiar but he both stage managed and designed lights for a number of early Papp productions, including the Twelfth Night mentioned in the play.
Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
445 Lafayette St., NYC
Through November 26