Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Illyria: Stage Folk

John Magaro and Fran Kranz in Richard Nelson's Illyria. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Richard Nelson must be the most prolific playwright in America. Within the last several years he wrote the four Apple Family plays and the three Gabriel plays; the published texts of his work take up most of a shelf at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. And though I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve seen or read, much of his work is first-rate, including some – like Nikolai and the Others, his 2013 portrait of the community of émigré Russian artists in New York after the Second World War, with Michael Cerveris and John Glover as Balanchine and Stravinsky – that deserved much more attention than it received. There hasn’t been much chatter about his latest, Illyria, which received a fine production at the Public, directed by Nelson himself, that closed a couple of weeks ago. Illyria is about the young Joe Papp, struggling to keep his first Shakespeare festival, in Central Park, alive in 1958 despite poor houses, fading finances and the menacing political climate: when the play begins, Papp (John Magaro, in a gruff, vivid performance) has just been fired from his job as a TV producer because the House Un-American Activities Committee has shown an interest in him. It’s a good play – well constructed, with a stage full of interesting, articulate characters whose conversation is well worth tuning into. And for theatre buffs, this glimpse into the scrambling, scrapping lives of young, idealistic, would-be-world-beating thespians of six decades ago has a special appeal and a special charm.

The play begins as Papp’s production of As You Like It, with hard-drinking, unpredictable George C. Scott as Jaques, is about to close and he’s getting ready to go into rehearsal for Twelfth Night. The director, Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), is auditioning a young actress named Mary Bennett (Nian González Norvind) for the role of Olivia; she’s the live-in girl friend of the stage manager, John Robertson (Max Woertendyke). But Papp’s wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly), who has taken a brief hiatus from acting to have their child, is now interested in returning to the stage, and Papp wants her for the part, so he more or less rigs the audition. Vaughan, a close friend of Joe’s who came up with him, doesn’t think much of Peggy’s acting, but his opinion is pushed into the background when it comes time to talk about the two candidates. To complicate the scenario further, Stuart has just been hired by the APA-Phoenix company as a resident director; he should be able to juggle both, but Joe can’t help seeing them as competitive positions and – though he never says so outright – Stuart’s new affiliation with another producer as a betrayal. The other characters are Joe’s press agent, Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz); Stuart’s wife Gladys (Emma Duncan), who also happens to be Joe’s assistant and whose company loyalty sometimes transcends her personal loyalty to her husband; David Amram (Blake DeLong), a laid-back musician and composer; Joe’s pal Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), a stage manager who has also received unwanted attention from HUAC; and the actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), whose star is rising and who is just beginning her romantic affiliation with George Scott. (Scott is a lively offstage presence in the play.)

Nelson is a diehard Stanislavskian. In Public’s intimate upstairs Anspacher Theater, where I also saw the Apple Family plays, the actors speak at normal volume, so you have to lean in to hear them. The dialogue overlaps and the staging never draws attention to itself. (That isn’t to say that it’s tossed-off or clumsy; in fact, it’s very deft.) And there are no false notes in any of the performances, though Magaro’s Papp is clearly at the center of the show. Magaro, a hard-working New York character actor who shows up in a lot of movies (The Big Short, Carol, Unbroken and The Finest Hours are among the most recent), contributes a fierce portrayal of a man whose passion, talent and ego are pretty much at equal force, and for whom the personal and the professional are inseparable. There is, of course, a poetic rightness to the fact that Nelson’s play about this early-career Papp received its premiere at the Public, since the Public and the New York Shakespeare Festival that is still run under its aegis were Papp’s signal achievements. But the playwright felt no compulsion to sugarcoat the character. He’s charismatic, fascinating and infuriating. Magaro meets the challenge of making him larger than life without stylizing him and thus violating the Stanislavskian ethic.

In the last scene, Twelfth Night has just played its farewell performance in Central Park on the Belvedere Lawn and Papp’s company has been evicted from the space for the foreseeable future. Some of the group linger on into the summer night, drinking and hanging onto each other’s companionship. This last scene could lose ten minutes or so. But you get the feeling that Nelson, like Papp and his friends, just can’t bear to let go – that he loves the characters and the backstage ambiance too much to shuffle away from it. There are worse fates than being stuck in the Anspacher a trifle longer than necessary with characters as compelling as these.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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