'Illyria' review: Richard Nelson’s play a must-see for Public Theater lovers

The Public Theater's latest play, "Illyria," tells the story of the theater company's origins. / Joan Marcus

It’s hard to imagine today, especially with “Hamilton” still a hyped-about hit on Broadway, but The Public Theater was not predestined to become a city cultural institution, an engine behind the development of landmark American dramas and musicals or the foremost champion of Shakespeare for the masses.

It easily could have collapsed early on, under the weight of founder Joseph Papp’s professional ambitions and pugnacious personality, and been a mere footnote in New York history, like so many other theater companies since the mid-20th century.

In the quiet, talky, pensive and unresolved new drama “Illyria,” playwright-director Richard Nelson brings to today’s Public a detailed portrait of Papp (played with charisma by John Magaro) as a scrappy young producer-director in 1950s NYC, struggling to sell his vision of free professional Shakespeare to a skeptical public and facing endless bureaucratic, financial, artistic and personal difficulties.

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Nelson himself has become a fixture at the Public in recent years with “The Gabriels” and “Apple Family Plays.”

Set over three scenes, and running a little under two hours without intermission, “Illyria” (a title that references the setting of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”) also includes other real-life figures from the theater’s early days including actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), resident director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz) and producer Bernard Gersten (Will Brill).

The play ends without climax or even a hint of resolution, and much of the conversation — which touches on topics of the time period such as the mega-projects of builder Robert Moses and the McCarthy hearings — rambles on too long, but those who appreciate Nelson’s intimate, low-key, ensemble-oriented aesthetic and Off-Broadway history will not want to miss it.

No plans have been announced, but “Illyria” could conceivably act as the starting point for a series of plays depicting critical moments in the Public Theater’s history, such as the opening of “Hair” that inaugurated its downtown space, the workshop-style development of “A Chorus Line,” the upheaval after Papp’s death and perhaps even last summer’s controversial production of “Julius Caesar.”