Friday, May 3, 2013

theatre review NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS, Off Broadway, April 27

A question that pops up a lot at cocktail parties is to list the famous people you'd want to host at a dinner party.  Playwright Richard Nelson has taken that question a step further and created an entire play about one day where several famous artists come together to eat, drink, talk about their pasts, the present and to ultimately create art.  Those people include composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer George Balanchine, conductor Serge Koussevitsky, painter/set designer Sergey Sudeikin and composer Nikolai Nabokov.  This is a fascinating look into the lives of these people who aren't just connected by the work they do but about the past they've shared.  It is an excellent play and actually makes you feel that you've not only had dinner with Stravinsky and Balanchine but that you've witnessed the true creation of their art in the process.

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
 And while Nelson has taken a major liberty in the play in the fact that Sudeikin actually passed away in 1946, two years before this historic ballet event occurred, that doesn't detract from the emotional connection he is able to make between the audience and these real life characters.  He not only shows us intimately how art is created but is able to set the creation process against the political backdrop at that time of the upcoming Cold War and the State Department's involvement in funding art by these more liberal minded Russians to attempt to get them on the side of the US.

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
I simply loved this play.  Nelson intertwines several themes about culture and how it impacts an individual as well as how immigrants must change and adapt in a country that doesn't accept them the way it once did, how artists must decide if they need to change or reinvent themselves when facing different cultures or political issues and how shared experiences and histories are the cement that hold people together in changing times.  I appreciated how Nelson has the play begin fairly slowly, with the various characters at the country house preparing for Sudeikin's arrival.  They are all busy moving furniture around and getting dishes and glasses together in order to accommodate the large group of people that have assembled to celebrate Sudeikin and to view Balanchine and Stravinsky at work.  We overhear snippets of conversation and get to realize who is who and how they all relate to each other. He then begins to weave in the political issues that they are all facing and literally has it explode with the creation of Orpheus inside the barn/dance studio right in front of our eyes.  Much more happens after this but the sense of time, place and of art that he creates is amazing.

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.

Official Lincoln Center Site

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