Get our free newsletter
This PBS/American Masters co-production suffers no dearth of famous talents willing to say admiring things about its subject, theater producer and Shakespeare in the Park founder Joseph Papp. Martin Sheen, James Earl Jones, and Kevin Kline are among the talking heads who line up to praise his conviction and work ethic; Meryl Streep recalls that when her first child was born, the director elbowed his way into the delivery room before her husband could. Papp wanted to make theater accessible to everyone. In his mid-30s he began staging free performances of Shakespeare plays in parks (and sometimes on flatbed trucks) in neighborhoods not served by traditional playhouses. Central Park’s outdoor Delacorte Theatre became a permanent home for his free summer Shakespeare productions, which are still running 50 years later. In 1967, he founded the Public Theater, nurturing several shows—Hair and A Chorus Line among them—that went on to become, to his surprise, Broadway smash hits. He poured the profits from these unlikely crowd-pleasers back into the public, turning his focus to transgressive work from playwrights like Ntozake Shange and David Rabe. In the 1950s, Papp was a Communist Party member who refused to name names; in the ’80s, he was a First Amendment advocate who refused NEA grant funds when they came with content-regulating strings attached. Directors Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen keep things moving at a brisk clip, packing four eventful decades of theatrical history into 84 minutes. The cost Papp paid for his workaholism (the wife who survived him was his fourth) gets some mention, but not until 1987, when Papp was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same time his son Tony was diagnosed with AIDS, does true misfortune seem to catch him. If the film seems a bit slick and light on insights into Papp’s character, maybe’s that because he didn’t live in his head. If you want to know the man, look at his work. Papp, who died in 1991, left plenty of it behind.