As unshowy a play as you’re ever likely to see about showpeople, Richard Nelson’s Illyria starts, as per its playwright and director’s tradition, in media res, with the inner circle of the fragile yet ascendant New York Shakespeare Festival talking business and eating sandwiches in April of 1958. But in media res isn’t quite the term for Nelson’s approach. Illyria starts the way a meeting might in a casual office, one where nobody’s sure who all is showing up and what’s to be settled that day. The assembled crew of directors, stage managers, and performers tack between shoptalk and personal dishing, the proper nouns tossed out without context, the conversation picking up then dying out the way conversations do. It’s revealing, when you tease significance from it — relish the stories about a hard-drinking George C. Scott chewing out a kiddo audience. It’s also at times a little listless, quiet enough that if you’re not in the front rows at the Public’s production, you might have to lean in and strain to catch it all. It’s less like you’re watching a play than trying to make sense of your first day at an internship.
And then Joe Papp (John Magaro) shows up, scrappy and confident, that most pragmatic of dreamers, his very presence giving shape and snap to the scene. Everyone there is there for him, and matters that we only idly attended to before now matter urgently. Magaro, this show’s center, plays Papp as a force of indomitable will, a man whose colleagues and family live committed to his vision of bringing theater to what nobody’s shy about calling “the people.” Over the course of 1958 and Illyria’s one hundred chatty minutes, we’ll hear about Papp’s face-offs with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which thinks free Shakespeare smells pretty commie, and Robert Moses himself, who insists that the festival’s theater in Central Park must start charging admission. But rather than behold those scenes, we hear about them, secondhand, as Papp and company talk it all through, sitting on their mobile stage on the park’s Belvedere lawn, or at the apartment of the actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), where so ordinary a dinner has been laid out that veterans of broke-ass artists’ potlucks in the audience might feel a twinge of panic — should I have brought a dish?
So it goes in Nelson’s plays, which, in this last decade’s two election cycles, have examined everyday life during moments of national upheaval, often to the rhythms of meals, their preparation, their consumption, and their cleanup afterward. Nelson’s seven plays about the Apple and Gabriel families surveyed ordinary fictional Americans while nonfiction America roiled in the background. In Illyria, it’s extraordinary people being roiled and doing the roiling, but the headlines again are the context rather than the drama. Nelson, as always, invests us in what precisely each person we’re beholding would be feeling in this particular moment in history. Since Illyria finds Papp at a low point, the show is often muted, even a little glum, its artists as caught up in the mundanity of their days as they are in matters of historic resonance. Nelson mostly avoids the kind of romanticizing that might please a crowd, instead reminding us that almost anyone’s then was as given over to petty preoccupations as our nows.
Still, Magaro is commanding when inveighing against Moses and “the new so-called Lincoln Center.” “It’s not that they don’t want Shakespeare in the park,” Papp snarls. “It’s that they want their own fucking Shakespeare in their own fucking park.” But he’s just as fascinating when his Papp is silent, sitting curiously still, sometimes listening to people who disagree with him but perhaps more often just waiting them out. We only see him with his circle, so this impassioned salesman doesn’t spend much time selling — he’s among true believers. Rather, Illyria finds him fighting to keep the festival going, even as he’s losing his day job at CBS (an invaluable source of cables and chairs for his theater) and his most valuable artistic collaborator, the director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), who has parlayed the success of his productions for Papp into a much more stable and remunerative gig at the Phoenix Theatre. In the second scene, a birthday supper for the main character, Vaughan scoffs at the thought of taking over the festival from Papp, who fears that his run-in with HUAC might spell its doom. “What’s in it for me?” Vaughan asks. He points out, with the air of the one man in the sick ward whose fever has broken, that the only reason they worked so hard on this festival in the first place was to get noticed — to get better jobs.
The real Vaughan (who died in 2014) told the critic Kenneth Turan — the author of 2009’s priceless oral history of the Public, Free for All — that Papp had never explicitly made him this offer. Nelson gives Vaughan some reasonable arguments, and Sanders tempers the careerist straight-talk with a wistful ache. He’s directing a season’s worth of plays by Nobel winners (oh, how Papp scoffs at that!) while Papp is considering taking on stage-manager work to make bank.
But Nelson’s play, like Turan’s book, is the story of a Great Man — the man, in fact, who built the very theater in which we’re watching this play. Papp’s influence on twentieth-century theater is as outsize as Moses’s on urban development, though blessedly for the better. That conclusion is never in doubt, as Illyria’s artists catch us up in their rich, reeling talk. But the scale and scope here is vigorously human, that of a leader/dreamer/producer/salesman and his dedicated coterie convincing each other, day after day, to keep at the work of realizing a vision.