BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Shakespeare’s rarely-staged “Timon of Athens” looks mighty nice at the Public Theater in a crisp, smartly shaped production starring a well-cast Richard Thomas as a blissful benefactor who sours on the world.
People feeling the economic pinch are sure to appreciate the rueful story about a rich guy who blows his bucks and then gets dumped by his chums.
They likewise will appreciate the Public’s affordable $15 opportunity to sit in the lovely arena intimacy of the Anspacher space and observe director-adaptor Barry Edelstein’s swift modern-dress version of this timely yet troublesome drama.
Skipping tons of dramaturgical theory here, “Timon of Athens” (1604-1609?) is attributed in part to Thomas Middleton and considered by scholars to be a faulty, incomplete draft. Possibly never staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the messy text invites editing.
Trimming unnecessary excess and reordering the action in places, Edelstein provides a smooth, compact account of this cautionary tale of a wealthy gent’s decline and fall into fatal bitterness.
Ever since his John-Boy days on “The Waltons,” Thomas has been a go-to actor for deep sincerity, and he appealingly depicts Timon as a genial fellow who naively gets choked up by his fair-weather friends’ flattery. In the aftermath of his bankrupted hero’s raging flame-out at a banquet, Thomas’ strangely cheerful, slit-eyed Timon suggests madness more than misanthropy.
Aptly dressed for modern times by Katherine Roth, Edelstein’s 15-member ensemble serves the play well with verbal clarity and distinctive characterizations. Max Casella portrays cynical Apemantus as a grungy plain-talker in a hoodie. Mark Nelson looks deeply grieved as Timon’s anxious steward. Reg E. Cathey gives a dignified presence and sepulchral voice to Alcibiades, yet another Athenian angry at society.
Framed by the Anspacher’s twin Corinthian columns, now painted gold to reinforce the play’s monetary basis, Neil Patel’s setting begins as a plush red-purple chamber that later is stripped to forlorn bareness and finally becomes beach-like environs for Timon’s self-imposed exile in the wilderness. Russell H. Champa’s tightly-focused lighting scheme and Curtis Moore’s dramatic music composed for electric guitar facilitate the production’s quick flow of scenes and enhance its subtleties in mood.
In spite of Edelstein’s effective staging and skillful adaptation, the drama remains a downer that trails off rather than concludes on a tragic peak — the embittered Timon dies offstage — but his vigorous revival still affords theatergoers a worthwhile look at one of Shakespeare’s seldom seen works.
“Timon of Athens” continues through March 6 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.