Richard Thomas and Mark Nelson
in Timon of Athens
(© Joan Marcus)
Richard Thomas and Mark Nelson
in Timon of Athens
(© Joan Marcus)
A wealthy man's fall into penury precedes his descent into misanthropic madness in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, now playing at the Public Theater. It's a sad tale that unfolds in one of the Bard's most disjointed and pedantically moralistic plays, but thanks to director Barry Edelstein's robust and exceptionally lucid staging and Richard Thomas' intelligent and frequently affecting performance, the production sparks with life with surprising regularity.

Thomas' performance takes some time to hit its stride. Initially, the actor's work seems strained as Timon liberally entertains the elite of Athens, treating them not only to lavish banquets, but also expensive gifts. Although Thomas beams genially and declaims boisterously, during these scenes in which Shakespeare one-dimensionally sets the stage for this tragedy in which Timon's beneficence will be rewarded with ingratitude, he is unable to enrich or deepen the drama.

It doesn't help that this section of the play has one of director Edelstein's most unconvincing embellishments: a bacchanalia replete with a video sequence that combines a clip of It's a Wonderful Life with black and white porn from the first part of the 20th Century.

Once Timon has fallen upon hard times (he has spent and entertained lavishly to the point of bankrupting himself), Thomas' performance soars as he infuses Timon's misanthropy and periodic madness with a deft blend of anger, cutting sarcasm, shrewdness and pitiable incomprehension. It's a joy to watch as the actor's chameleon-like Timon encounters different former friends in the wilderness (to which he's retreated after his fall into poverty.

The actor's work is matched by a number of other fine turns, primarily Mark Nelson's heartbreakingly earnest and caring performance as Timon's servant Flavius. Reg E. Cathey is formidable as Alcibiades, an Athenian captain who proves to be both a friend to Timon and also an enemy to Athens, after his pleas for clemency for one of his soldiers are denied by the Athenian senate. As a pair of artists in Timon's circle, Greg McFadden and Orville Mendoza bring a comic lightness to the show .

The sense of the play's timeless message about the nature of true friendship and the tenuousness of affluence is underscored beautifully by a top-notch physical production. Neil Patel's scenic design encompasses both contemporary chic and a sense of urban homelessness (in the play's second half) with the use of a huge blue tarp and panels from cardboard packing crates. Russell H. Champa gives the production a distinct edge with his dramatically shifting lighting design as does Curtis Moore's jagged and terrifically conceived original score for electric guitar.