cover image Joe Papp: An American Life

Joe Papp: An American Life

Helen Epstein, Author Little Brown and Company $24.95 (554p) ISBN 978-0-316-24604-0

After writing an article in 1976 about Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, Epstein became close to the impresario and was to become his authorized biographer, but he changed his mind. This book was researched after Papp's death in 1991 with the assistance of his widow, Gail Merrifield. Epstein ( Children of the Holocaust ) has used her personal access well to provide a thorough, candid portrait of the hard-driving director/producer who made free Shakespeare in Central Park an annual event and who built a theatrical empire at the Public Theater, where he presented such groundbreaking works as Hair , for colored girls who have considered suicide and A Chorus Line , as well as Shakespearean productions that proved his contention that the Bard could be played with a vigorous American accent. In chronicling Papp's impoverished childhood (he was born in Brooklyn in 1921, the son of Jewish immigrants), his early years with the Actors Lab in California, his membership in the Communist Party, his four marriages and his stormy relationships with his children and colleagues, Epstein vividly evokes his charm and strong social conscience. She does not scant, however, a core of coldness that led him to discard Shakespeare Festival associates in whom he had lost interest or by whom he felt threatened. Sympathetic but critical, her thoughtful biography is a fitting tribute to the man who fought to bring theater to more diverse audiences and to build it on ``the bedrock of civic responsibility.'' Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.)