Set over a weekend in 1948, Nelson's play, receiving its world premiere, centers on this very close-knit group of Russian artists, their wives, ex-wives and the people who work for them. The special event that prompts this meeting is the "name day" of designer Sudeikin, who is very ill and who used to be married to Stravinsky's current wife Vera. They all meet up at a country house in Westport, Connecticut where Stravinsky and Balanchine are collaborating on their ballet piece Orpheus that would premiere later that year at New York City Ballet as that companies inaugural production.
|John Glover, Michael Rosen and Michael Cerveris|
The play is called Nikolai and the Others due to the fact that Nikolai Nabokov is the center connection between all of these people and is able to help them with any issues they have with the US now that he is working for the CIA. Whether it be Vera's concern about her abilities to get back into the US or an actor's concern over a political film he took part in, they all seek out Nikolai's aid in helping them navigate through the changing political crossroads they now find themselves at the center of.
|Blair Brown and Steven Kunken|
Nelson also incorporates a theatrical device to portray the language the characters are speaking. While all but three of the characters in the play are Russian, and the entire play is in English, Nelson still has many parts of the text assume that the characters are speaking Russian. He does this by having them use non-accented English to represent when they are speaking Russian, and in a Russian accented English when they are speaking English. This is used a few times when they are speaking Russian in front of the Americans who don't speak the language, as this way the audience understands exactly what is being said in both languages. It is a simple device that has been used before, but adds considerably to the play, especially around the political nature and to show the enormous bond these Russians have to each other by choosing to speak their native language when they are together.
|Haviland Morris and Steven Kunken|
Director David Cromer expertly handles the large cast of this play, which says a lot considering this is at the Mitzi Newhouse, which is the smaller of the Lincoln Center Theatres. I think except for the musical Contact which originated at the Mitzi, there hasn't been a play with this large of a cast in this space before. While it can seem a little claustrophobic and jammed at times, Cromer stages it effectively so it actually adds to the element of closeness that these characters have with each other. Cromer has skillfully not only used the small space for the three locations the play takes place in with ease but his ability to carefully stage the at-times over lapping dialogue without it being misunderstood is especially notable. He has also found a cast more than up to the challenge of not just portraying actual characters but ones who easily appear to be exceptionally close to each other.
|Michael Rosen, Michael Cerveris and Natalia Alonso|
The cast is superb, large, and all great, but let me just mention a few who are outstanding. Michael Cerveris and John Glover are Balanchine and Stravinsky and both are, as usual, delivering performances at the top of their game. Both are given times to show off their character's artistic creative processes with Cerveris especially believable as a choreographer. Blair Brown is Vera, and she couldn't be more in tune in portraying the deep love she has for both Stravinsky and her ex husband Sudeikin. All three also are believable when speaking of the political concerns they have. Stephen Kunken is Nikolai and gets the most stage time, which is understandable since he is the title character, but there are many times when he isn't speaking, but listening or reacting to something someone says, and it is at those times when Kunken really excels. There is one moment in the second act when something is revealed to Nikolai and his reaction to it, most of which is silent, shows the range of emotions that you know would be true.
I also liked Alvin Epstein's portrayal of Sudeikin as a sickly man, but one who hasn't given up on life just yet and Haviland Morris as Lucia Davidova, Balanchine's right arm and the owner of the house. The way she so easily gets across what working for Balanchine entails made the creative process and all that comes with it immensely understandable. As dancers Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes, the stars of Orpheus, Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen have no problem in portraying these characters, whether in being their excellent dance skills or the way they feel as outsiders when surrounded by all of the Russian characters in the play.
Creative elements are exceptional with Marsha Ginsberg's scenic design especially memorable. At first we are outside of the house, then move into the barn/dance studio that evening and then later that night and the next morning are in the living room, all seamlessly done with just the movement of one major set piece and some exceptional lighting by Ken Billington. Jane Greenwood's costume design is period perfect not only with dresses and suits but the dance costumes as well.
As much as I enjoyed this play my one only quibble, which has nothing to do with the play, but just this production, is the use of modern dressed stage hands to move some of the furniture around during the set changes. Seeing guys in black jeans and wearing headsets tends to take one out of the magical period of 1948 that the play has created in a very blunt way.
Nikolai and the Others officially opens next Monday and runs through June 16th. Don't miss it.
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