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Timon of Athens

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Timon of Athens
Richard Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Public Theater’s Public LAB series may have been launched three years ago with the intent of giving the illustrious nonprofit a way to present shows in budget-friendly workshop mode, but you’d never know that by looking at some of its productions. The ritziest example has probably been Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but the latest, Timon of Athens, may supplant it. A part of the new Public LAB Shakespeare initiative, this production, which has been directed by Barry Edelstein, is so handsomely appointed, your mind is utterly freed to focus on the text. Were this nearly any other Shakespeare play, that would be a good thing.

Before we get to that, credit is due scenic designer Neil Patel, who’s established a sumptuous refuge within the confines of The Public’s Anspacher Theater. The velvety maroon carpeting, imprinted with laurel leaves befitting the Greek setting, and lush purple backdrop; lavish tablescapes; glittering chandeliers, doors, and even the venue’s omnipresent pillars—all announce the glory of frivolous accumulation and even more frivolous spending with such complete lip-licking abandon that the appearance of a giant golden dish piled with caviar is almost anticlimactic. Katherine Ross’s costumes, largely clingy business suits for the all-male cast, and Russell H. Champa’s splashy lighting complete the sparkling effect. Many are the Broadway shows today that don’t look so good.

This makes a compelling playground for spendthrift Timon (Richard Thomas), a loaded Athenian who’s learned that the best way to obtain friends is to buy them — as many times as necessary. And as the early scenes of the play’s first half unfold, Thomas’s high-arching laugh and excited eyes capturing the childlike wonder of this man who’s discovered his own most pleasurable purpose in life, it seems as if the mating of designers, director, and star could not have been better organized.

Perhaps for those scenes, they could not have been. But the play exists well beyond them, expanding into Timon’s bankruptcy and downfall, being denied by the very men with whom he’d surrounded himself and becoming a pauper both emotionally and financially. And despite everyone’s best efforts, much of what happens from the economic tsunami on is pure nonsense. Not that this is necessarily the fault of anyone involved here. Timon of Athens, on which Shakespeare is said to have collaborated with Thomas Middleton, has been unpolished and problematic for centuries, and requires a flawless touch merely to stay afloat.

Edelstein’s touch, unfortunately, is not flawless. The happy-go-lucky buoyancy of the play’s opening does not transition naturally to the jagged, borderline-Brechtian staging that eventually consumes the action. The earlier resplendence, which is so effortlessly applied to the script’s pyrite demeanor, is swept away with great speed and viciousness — so much so that we never have time to mourn, or even acknowledge, its absence.

When, after intermission, Timon is reduced to poverty in his struggle to understand and reclaim his soul, the where and why of his new normal are an impenetrable mystery. His world essentially disintegrates offstage, leaving Thomas a screaming mass of disconnected fury in the “Henceforth be no feast” tirade that should be central to the character. It’s cathartic here, for both Thomas (who lets go for the one and only time during it) and for us, who are all still reeling (in one way or another) from the 2008 financial collapse that threatened to permanently derail America (and which, in a program note, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis admits sparked this production).

Yet Thomas’s anger, palpable though it may be, doesn’t communicate everything it must — the ties from the gregarious Timon to the rage-a-holic to the despondent simply don’t follow here. These loose threads — to say nothing of the narrative black hole that is the subplot surrounding Alcibiades (a game but rocky Reg E. Cathey), a fallen Athenian general with a sort-of plan to retake the town — are endemic to the work itself, but must be addressed by anyone taking it on. Edelstein frankly seems more interested in the build-up, offering up a spicy ensemble of clever character actors (among them David Manis, Triney Sandoval, and Orville Mendoza) to revel in Timon’s wealth, but delivering a less enthusiastic group for the men who must perform the post-decline heavy-lifting. (Mark Nelson is very one-note in his concern as Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward; and Max Casella, dressed as a Berkeley dropout can’t locate the necessary earthy sympathies in the prophetic prophet, Apemantus.)

This Timon of Athens, then, ends as little more than it begins: a confusing curiosity, wanting to spout answers without daring to specify the questions. What Edelstein and his company prove, intentionally or otherwise, is that the most destructive deficit facing the world is a poverty of ideas. As we’re challenged every day to make sense of the new realities that surround us, so too are these artists charged with using this half-conceived play to help us locate and interpret those answers. Beautiful as this production may sometimes look, when the excess is stripped away we're all on equally uncertain and unsatisfying footing.


Timon of Athens
Through March 6
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.publictheater.org