by Wickham Boyle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 31, 2017

John Magaro and Fran Kranz
John Magaro and Fran Kranz   

"Illyria" and directed and written by the seminal American playwright, Richard Nelson, tells the story of the nascence of the now-acclaimed Public Theater.

Nelson writes tales that transform and illuminate families in every ensemble he puts on stage. The Public has nurtured and mounted both "The Apple Family" plays and "The Gabriel" plays. These extended groupings gave Nelson a chance to work over time, to tell quintessentially American stories with groups of actors who morphed into theatrical families. This time he has turned his attentions to the founding of The Public Theater.

I fervently recall all the iterations of the Public theater from the little mobile stage, which was driven by my then boyfriend around the City, to the move, 50 years ago, to the glorious Astor Place site as an endowed gift from the City. In the early days it was called Joe Papp's Public Theater, so it will come as no surprise to audiences that in the spring and summer of 1958 Papp's prodigious ego was already in full view. He was a visionary who knew what he wanted and bucked the mighty to achieve it. This marvelous naturalistic work is perfectly cast and situated at the Public.

By this point in his life and career Papp was working as a stage manager for CBS, he was married to actress Peggy Papp and they had a daughter with the Shakespearean name of Miranda. Papp was already friends with and in a close working relationship to Stuart Vaughan, the talented John Sanders, who directed the first plays at the Public and then went on to be artistic director of the Phoenix Theater, a bone of contention between the two men. Also in the Papp orbit are Bernie Gersten, stage manager turned producer, Merle Debusky, a press agent, David Amram a composer, and Colleen Dewhurst, played wonderfully by Rosie Benton.

John Magaro really embodies Joe Papp and delivers beyond imagining. He has the gestures; the mercurial quick mood changes from saccharine to cutting, and the political chutzpa to take on the likes of Robert Moses. Moses had achieved a czar like eminence and was in the process of attempting to slice up the City further by inserting overhead highways bisecting Washington Square Park.

Entire neighborhoods, including Carnegie Hall, were slated for demolition. Much of the west side was razed to build Lincoln Center, dubbed the "Palace of Art." Moses' heavy hand is what is credited with dealing a death-blow to the fragile South Bronx as a huge highway cut the neighborhood in half. Papp, as well as visionary Jane Jacobs, vociferously opposed Moses and helped save much of what we prize as New York City. In the midst of the gentrification of the arts Papp and his coterie remained committed to free Shakespeare productions in Central Park and decades later this is still thriving.

The play unfolds in the thrust stage of the intimate Anspacher Theater on the second floor of the Public complex. The set, well conceived and designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West features a jumble of wooden furniture, coffee pot, tables and chairs which are reconfigured for each of the three scenes, which with little perceivable break mark the different moments.

A rehearsal room, a dinner party at Ms. Dewhurst's and finally Central Park after the summer's final show all unite to allow us in one hour and forty minutes to see the building blocks of the institution that brought us "Hair," "A Chorus Line," and "Hamilton," among many.

The work fascinates as it also provides a window into a time of political foment where artists were still being summoned to the McCarthy tribunal and many in City government and beyond were bowing down to a kind of political cronyism and fear mongering the likes of which we are again being buffeted by.

The cast delights as it works seamlessly. Leading the pack are Debusky played by Fran Kranz, Emma Duncan playing Joe's assistant with a wonderful understated steel spine (her character Gladys is also married to Papp nemesis Stuart Vaughan), and Kristen Connolly as Papp's wife. The cohesiveness may emanate from the fact that in this premier version of the work, author Nelson, also directs, imbuing the play with an even greater intimacy.

According the author's program notes Illyria is the country where Viola in "Twelfth Night" finds herself shipwrecked. Nelson unearthed a letter written by Papp to an actor who had been in his version of "Twelfth Night" where he wrote, "Illyria is a mythical country where strange and wonderful things happen..."

Yes, and so it is for theater as well. I, for one, hope that Nelson and the Public will continue this person history chronicle well into The Public's magical history.

"Illyria" runs through December 10 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place. For information or tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit