‘Illyria’ Theater Review: Joe Papp’s Company Presents a Warts-and-All Look at the Man

Richard Nelson’s new play is a must-see for anyone who cares about the theater. Just make sure you rent a listening device

The Phoenix Theater’s production of “The Seagull” marked Montgomery Clift’s big return to the theater, in 1954, after a decade of making movies in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the first preview of the Chekhov classic fell flat with the audience, and Arthur Miller was called in to give notes. According to Maureen Stapleton, also in the cast, the playwright was concise. “His first note was ‘I can’t hear you,'” she recalled. “[H]is second note was ‘I can’t hear you,’ his third note was ‘I can’t hear you.'”

That quote from Patricia Bosworth’s biography “Montgomery Clift” came to mind while watching and struggling to listen to Richard Nelson’s new play, “Illyria,” which opened Monday at the Public Theater. At the critics’ preview I attended, there were murmurs in the audience early in the performance, with people leaning forward in their seats. Afterward, I spoke to several people, a few of whom attended other previews, who had severe problems hearing the actors in the 275-seat Anspacher Theater. I had the advantage of having read the play beforehand, so I caught most of what was being said on stage. I think.

It’s a pity because “Illyria” is one of the best new plays to open in New York City this year, up there with Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part 2” and Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget.” You might extend that pity to Nelson if not for the fact that he also directed “Illyria,” a play that looks at the backstory of the Public Theater in its earliest days, when it was known simply as the New York Shakespeare Festival and its founder, Joseph Papp, presented free theater in Central Park.

It’s clear what Nelson is trying to do with his actors’ low-key, super-naturalistic performances, and the Anspacher Theater should be the perfect space for it. What became a major cultural institution in America began as a very small enterprise; and Nelson gives us a brief glimpse into the past by telling the story of a little, troubled production of “Twelfth Night,” one that almost buried Papp’s company in the summer of 1958. There’s never a misstep in Nelson’s script or any of the performances (except for the fact that you might not be able to hear them) to suggest that this theater company is going on to bigger and better things. The stadium seating at the Anspacher forces us to look down on these very real, often petty, people at a special moment in history. We don’t so much share their fears and frustrations as observe them, and there isn’t any comfort offered that time will eventually reward these artists.  This is very different from Steven Spielberg’s approach to an historic subject: The film director bathes his subjects in the golden, bathetic glow of their being instant legends.

The nearly inaudible performances are effective in setting up Nelson’s perspective in the play’s first few minutes, when various members of the theater company meet in a greenroom to audition actors for the role of Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” (Shakespeare’s play is set in Illyria.) The dialogue is little more than office talk around the cooler, so it’s okay that we’re eavesdropping and missing a few words. Later, however, when Joe Papp (John Magaro) arrives and the real drama begins, we’re still forced to eavesdrop and wonder about what we’re not hearing.

In Nelson’s play, Papp doesn’t want to hire the actress Mary Bennett (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) whom the director, Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), wants to play Olivia. Papp, in a blatant show of nepotism, wants Vaughan to hire the second actress who auditions, who happens to be Papp’s current wife, Peggy (Fran Kranz being painfully aware of her character’s awkward status). “Illyria” is billed as “a play in three scenes,” and this first one is masterful. The ebb and flow of art, ego, altruism and naked ambition is established and will create a sea of angst-ridden confusion in the scenes to come.

Think again if you think a play about Papp staged at his theater is going to be a hagiography. As effectively played by Magaro, this impresario is a near nightmare to work for, and the actor and playwright make it clear that Papp’s worst traits as a human being are what forced him to persevere when the park’s commissioner, Robert Moses, HUAC, and the city’s cultural elite, including the powers behind the new Lincoln Center, were all against him.

In the end, Papp casts his wife in “Twelfth Night,” and Vaughan (a rather pedestrian stage director in real life) goes on to bigger things. He’s called “Mr. Broadway” in the play. There’s a tragedy at the core of “Illyria,” one that’s rarely explored in the arts but is all too commonplace. Since Papp really wants to direct, he puts himself at the helm of “Twelfth Night,” and the best anyone can say about his staging is that “it didn’t rain.” How does a third-rate talent cope with pursuing his real gift when it’s not his first love? Many producers, art historians, teachers and, yes, critics will relate.

Equally insightful are all the other dangling threads of human behavior that appear in “Illyria” and, as in life, never get tied up. There’s the actress who wisely segues from living with the theater’s stage manager (Max Woertendyke) to its more well-positioned composer (Blake DeLong). The theater’s flack (Fran Kranz being slyly obsequious) is a political genius who shows no other apparent talent. And the division of power between all the actresses/girlfriends/wives and all the men who actually control the show seems especially absurd when everything’s falling apart.

“Illyria” is a must-see for anyone who cares about the theater. Just make sure you rent a listening device or sit in the first row.