Review: ‘Illyria’ Eavesdrops on a Young Joe Papp and Friends

Those uniquely topical dramas explored of-the-moment events through the eyes of two different families. They were vivid slice-of-life works in which meals were prepared and consumed, as the people onstage looked at a changing nation from their own beleaguered corner of it.

Mr. Nelson takes a similarly sideways approach in “Illyria,” with more mixed results. If you don’t know much about the real Joseph Papp (1921-1991), you may wonder what the heck’s going on and why you should be interested. If you do know a lot about Papp and his associates, you may be a bit exasperated by the liberties Mr. Nelson has taken in bringing them to life.

But “Illyria” also affords distinctive if fleeting pleasures that no one these days does better than Mr. Nelson. I mean the sense of experiencing life, in all its trivia and eventfulness, happening in a very specific moment, among people who know one another well. And once again, Mr. Nelson has assembled a fine cast that wears its alter egos with the ease of old cardigans.

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From left, Emma Duncan as Gladys Vaughan, John Sanders as Stuart Vaughan, Fran Kranz as Merle Debuskey, John Magaro as Joseph Papp and Kristen Connolly as Peggy Papp in Richard Nelson’s look at the early life of the founder of the Public Theater. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Aside from Joe, only one of the characters is likely to be familiar to much of the audience. That’s the formidable actress Colleen Dewhurst (played by Rosie Benton), who is just beginning to forge a career in the late 1950s. In “Illyria,” she appears as the hostess of the last-minute birthday bash in the play’s second scene, and she by no means dominates the proceedings.

Though the scandalous professional behavior of her future husband, George C. Scott, is much discussed, Colleen is just one of many theatrical aspirants here, a band of almost equals still struggling to make a living. She’s part of Joe’s nascent New York Shakespeare Festival, which puts on plays from the canon for free in the city’s parks.

Others on the team include Joe’s actress wife, Peggy (Kristen Connolly), who has just had a baby; the press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz); the stage manager John Robertson (Max Woertendyke); and the composer David Amram (Blake DeLong). The resident director is Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), whose wife, Gladys (Emma Duncan), is Joe’s assistant.

Local theater buffs may recognize the names of Mr. Debuskey and Mr. Vaughan, as well as that of another character, Bernie Gersten (Will Brill), a longtime friend of Papp’s who would become a producer at his Shakespeare Festival and later Lincoln Center. The dramatis personae is rounded out by Mary Bennett (Naian González Norvind), a young actress new to this insular world.

Mostly these people just talk and, this being a play by Mr. Nelson, eat (sandwiches, generally). The subjects of conversation melt and swirl and resurface in thick eddies. They include who to cast as Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” Peggy’s reluctant return to the stage and the consequences of Joe’s and Bernie’s being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected Communist affiliations.

The political taint of such presumed associations has put Joe’s fledging troupe in jeopardy, and we hear accounts of his run-ins with the city’s parks department, then overseen by the mighty Robert Moses. Will the establishment put the kibosh on these maverick idealists? Will “Twelfth Night” in Central Park, the occasion for the play’s third and final scene, be this troupe’s last production?

These dramatic questions are not posed with histrionic flourish in “Illyria.” (The title comes from the fantastical setting for “Twelfth Night.”) Often they loom less large than romantic crosscurrents and nagging rivalries, particularly between Joe and the more successful Stuart, whom Mr. Sanders portrays with a canny subliminal smugness.

Theatergoers expecting the explosions, resolutions and emotional payoffs of a conventionally well-made play are likely to leave “Illyria” frustrated. Though it verges on starry-eyed sentimentality in its final scene, most of this production — designed with spot-on period detail by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West — refrains from thematic signposting.

Instead, it inhabits a landscape where the petty and the momentous are practically indistinguishable, and even the strongest feelings are muddied with ambivalence. The real Joe Papp, showman that he was, might have deemed “Illyria” too muted and inconclusive to be satisfying.

Theatergoers with patience, though, will be rewarded by moments throughout when they will feel transformed into proverbial flies on the walls of a distant time and place. Real life is happening, as boring and confusing and riveting as it usually appears without the magnifying lens of hindsight.

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