By: David Sheward
Russians are dominating the New York stage these days. First we had Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s wild takeoff on Chekhov, which is the frontrunner for the Best Play Tony. Then Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s inventive, immersive pop-opera based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now with Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson, one of our finest playwrights, focuses on a group of artistic émigrés adjusting to life in post-World War II America. Nelson, whose work includes fresh takes on historic figures (The General From America, Two Shakespearean Actors), also echoes Chekhov in this thought-provoking examination of art, politics, sex, and the meaning of home.
Like many of Chekhov’s theatrical works, Nikolai takes places at a country home during a gathering of friends and relations whose amorous and artistic ambitions come into conflict. It’s 1948, and Lucia Davidova is hosting a weekend at her Westport, Conn., home, just for her fellow Russian exiles. The most prominent of these are the choreographer George Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky, who are collaborating on a new ballet based on the Orpheus myth. There’s also Stravinsky’s wife, Vera; her ex-husband Sudeikin, once a prominent artist, now a broken old man; Vladimir Sokoloff, an actor consigned to "exotic" roles; and the protagonist, Nikolai Nabokov, a composer working for the American government in its cultural Cold War against the former homeland of the guests. There are many other characters and dozens of plots and subplots, but the main one is provided by Nicky’s efforts to aide his fellow Russians in their various problems with passports and finding work, and Nicky’s passionate desire to return to his music and drop his diplomatic chores.
These wishes are stymied by a surprise visitor, Charles "Chip" Bohlen, a state department official determined to keep Nicky in the employ of Uncle Sam. Nelson subtly weaves these threads together in a fascinating tapestry depicting the complex juxtaposition of the joy of art and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. All of these geniuses need the somewhat vulgar Chip to survive in their new home, and the push-pull of passion versus necessity is exemplified in Nicky’s dilemma. So they knuckle under to Chip’s pressures to become patriotic, anti-Communist Americans while creating beautiful dances, pictures, and music. Orpheus’s lyre becomes a symbol of their undying need to create art, but Nelson doesn’t hit us over the head with it.
There are an astonishing 18 actors on the intimate Newhouse stage, and director David Cromer moves them around Marsha Ginsberg’s cozy farmhouse set with the choreographic skill worthy of Balanchine. It’s exciting to see so many fine performers in a nonmusical play in these budget-strapped days. Each delivers a colorful and vital piece to this masterful mosaic. But special mention should be made of Stephen Kunken’s torn-up Nicky, Alvin Epstein’s feisty Sudeikin, John Glover’s egotistical Stravinsky, John Procaccino’s comic Vladimir, and Michael Rosen and Natalia Alonso as the graceful principal dancers in the ballet in development.
Nikolai and the Others
May 6-June 16. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minute, including intermission. $75-85. (800) 432-7250. www.telecharge.com Photos: Paul Kolnik
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