Just a few blocks away from the Theater for the New City is the much more famous and established Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp, the theater giant who brought audiences “A Chorus Line,” “Sticks and Bones,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Talk Radio,” among many, many others. Papp, whose first language was Yiddish, didn’t learn English until he went to school in Brooklyn. He produced the wonderful Yiddish-language “Songs of Paradise” in 1989 in an attempt to start a Yiddish theater.
The current production at the Public, “Illyria” by Richard Nelson, isn’t interested in Papp’s Jewish heritage. It tells how a young Joe Papp attempted to bring Shakespeare (in English!) to the masses in Central Park, free of charge. So, it’s also a story of the magical power of theater. Unfortunately, Nelson, whose work has appeared at the Public several times before, manages to drain every bit of magic out of this tale and somehow succeeds in turning Joe Papp, once considered the towering monarch of nonprofit theater in New York City, into an annoying kvetch.
Set in the 1950s, “Illyria” puts a large cast on stage and then leaves them there to chat, gossip, and eat for almost two hours. For a viewer unfamiliar with Joe Papp, the Shakespeare Festival, George C. Scott, and HUAC, the play would be incomprehensible.
That is, if they could hear most of it. Nelson believes in “conversational” theater, which translates into the actors speaking in normal tones. Of course, in a theater, that means that many people can’t hear them at all. Not that there is much to hear. Much of the dialogue concerns the rivalries and backbiting that went on in Papp’s first troupe, and his struggle with Robert Moses, who was in charge of the city’s parks at the time. The minutiae of what happened almost 70 years ago is so much inside baseball to an audience today, and Nelson doesn’t bother to show us how Papp succeeded in funding the Shakespeare Festival, which we all know is alive and well. He doesn’t bother to show us much of anything at all; nothing happens in “Illyria” except for office politics and name dropping.
There’s not much magic in this theatrical production, which would be as disappointing to Joe Papp as it is to the audience.