Off Broadway Reviews
Ostensibly an attempt to explore the obsessive relationship between the artistic impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who met in 1908 when the former was 35 and the latter was 19, Fire and Air doesn't know what it wants to be. It roughly covers the twenty-year period following their meeting (when Nijinsky was passed to Diaghilev by his previous lover, Prince Pavel Lvov, who had grown tired of him), thru the formation and international success of Diaghilev's glamorous Ballets Russes, Nijinsky's choreographic triumphs between 1912 and 1913 (with The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux and The Rite of Spring), their breakup and estrangement (which was precipitated by Nijinsky's spontaneous marriage to Hungarian groupie Romola de Pulszky in 1913 while on tour in South America), Diaghilev's replacement of Nijinsky with Leonid Massine, and, finally, Diaghilev's death in 1929. It's a bullet-point list of perfunctory biographical moments, but McNally's script doesn't say anything meaningful in their recitation. There is no depth to the dialogue and, though his writing is facile, McNally says nothing perceptive about how Diaghilev and Nijinsky's revolutionary relationship changed themselves or the world of dance.
Even though the direction of Fire and Air by John Doyle is uncharacteristically flat, the show's biggest liability in CSC's production is Douglas Hodge's unleashed performance as Diaghilev. A Tony and Olivier winner for his delicious portrayal of Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, Hodge is an accomplished, renaissance artist who has specialized in the works of Pinter, among others. But his wild-eyed, bi-polar Diaghilev is utterly out of control. In what may be the most overwrought performance I've ever seen on a stage, his histrionics would be entertaining if they weren't so wildly out of synch with the performances of his excellent supporting cast. Did Doyle direct him to give this performance, or was it pure self-indulgence? Who can say?
What I can say is the rest of the cast are giving beautifully modulated performances within the constraints of bringing McNally's flawed script to life. It's wonderful to see Marsha Mason onstage again as Diaghilev's ever-practical nursemaid, Dunya, and it's also a joy to see the luminous Marin Mazzie as Diaghilev's lifelong friend and benefactor, Misia Sert. It's worth noting the golden-voiced Mazzie played Misia on a 2015 PS Classics studio recording of a musical based on her life featuring the music of Vernon Duke with the lyrics of Barry Singer. Sadly, Mazzie doesn't get to sing in Fire and Air, though it could only have enhanced the proceedings if she had.
Ultimately Fire and Air raises more questions than it answers. Why didn't Doyle cast a real ballet dancer as Nijinsky? Why isn't Nijinsky's sister Bronislava, who played such a pivotal role throughout his life, portrayed? Why isn't Nijinsky's wife Romola portrayed? Why isn't the illness that killed Diaghilev, diabetes, ever mentioned but his boils are constantly referenced? Was it just an excuse for Hodge to roll around on the stage in agonizing pain? And, most perplexing, though we hear the famous music from many of their ballets, why is no one dancing? After two-hours, no one will blame audiences if they simply don't care.
Fire and Air