The Public Theater has priced all tickets to Timon of Athens at just $15, which means you won’t need to take out a loan to attend. Quite a good thing, as loans, it seems, are difficult to come by, both in Timon’s Ancient Greece and in our own day. “This is no time,” says the nobleman Lucullus, “to lend money, especially upon bare friendship”—a statement to cheer the heart of many a banker. Director Barry Edelstein has set this Timon, one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays, somewhere in the late ’60s, yet he clearly means the hero’s economic downturn to echo our own.
As the drama opens, Timon (Richard Thomas) shares his wealth among his friends, doling out funds and lavish gifts, stocking his banquet table with tureens of beluga. But when his debts overwhelm him, all his comrades shun him. Thomas is wholly convincing as the affable Timon of the play’s first half, less assured as the filthy, aged recluse of the later acts. Perhaps he appears too young for the role. Though 60, he looks more than a decade younger. One suspects either sorcery or surgery—or both
Like Thomas’s performance, Edelstein’s direction also diminishes as the play marches on. While the opening scenes are lively if perhaps unsubtle (at one juncture, Timon is bound with receipt tape), Edelstein can’t overcome the structural sameness that mars the play’s second half. Nevertheless, he’s created a brisk, accessible, and intensely lucid production, apparently the goal of the new Public Lab Shakespeare initiative, which attempts, according to a program note, to produce Shakespeare “at his most spare, clear, and muscular.” Edelstein seems to have taken this mandate to heart: Perhaps in an effort to make this Timon particularly muscular, Edelstein has gone and cut all the female roles.
Ultimately, Timon renounces his former prosperity, choosing to expire righteous and penniless. His trusted steward (the fine Mark Nelson) approves this, declaiming, “Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt,/Since riches point to misery and contempt?” And that’s perhaps where the play fails to resonate with the contemporary situation. Timon rails vividly against striving for gain, against the rancid ties between money and power. Yet however much the audience applauded, I doubt many of them desired to trade a cozy apartment for a stay in Timon’s squalid cave. Riches may point to misery, but they still pay the rent.