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Nikolai and the Others

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

The Cast
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

There's an honorable tradition of excellent plays based on the lives of historical characters, but also a dishonorable tradition of works in which the writers were unable to limn the lives of the famous and semi-famous in any compelling way. Richard Nelson's Nikolai and the Others, now playing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, falls into the latter category and therefore might be viewed as grave robbing.

This is not Nelson's first unfortunate, pseudo-historical play; Two Shakespearean Actors, about the intense rivalry between thesps William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest that led to the Astor Place riot of 1849, had a brief run on Broadway more than 20 years ago. In Nikolai and the Others, two of the main characters are the legendary choreographer George Balanchine and the equally legendary composer Igor Stravinsky. The time is 1948 and the setting is a farmhouse in Westport, Connecticut, where a large group mostly made up of expatriate Russians has gathered to eat, talk, and see some excerpts from Orpheus, a new ballet that Balanchine is creating to music by Stravinsky.

Two big red flags fly over the play before the action begins. The first comes by way of a note in the Playbill, in which Nelson allows that he has taken "liberties" with historical accuracy and attempts to justify them. As he informs us, "Balanchine first showed Stravinsky his work on . . . Orpheus in New York City . . . not on a farm in Westport," and one of the major characters in the play actually died two years before the birth of the ballet. The note goes on to state that Nelson's goal in writing this piece was "to show a world where the creating of art . . . lives side by side, cheek by jowl, with all other essential and necessary functions of human life" - a less than brilliant concept and not exactly original, to be sure.

The second red flag is the cast list. In addition to Balanchine and Stravinsky, the play is populated by the title character, composer Nikolai Nabokov (played by Stephen Kunken); Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), a revered set designer; Vera Stravinsky (Blair Brown), current wife of Stravinsky and former wife of Sudeikin; Natasha Nabokov (Kathryn Erbe), Nikolai's ex-wife; Lucia Davidova (Havilland Morris), the hostess of the weekend in Westport; Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino), an actor friend of the Stravinskys; Aleksi Karpov (Anthony Cochrane), a piano teacher engaged to Natasha; Kolya (Alan Schmuckler), Balanchine's rehearsal pianist and Sudeikin's nephew; conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place); and Balanchine's wife, the superb Native American ballet dancer Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso).

But wait, there's more - believe it or not. Also on hand are Evgenia (Katie Kreisler) and Natalia (Jennifer Grace), who respectively run and work at the here-unnamed School of American Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded with Lincoln Kirstein; Nicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen), a young dancer; and Anna (Lauren Culpepper), Lucia's niece, who's studying to be a dancer. Last but not least in terms of the plot, such as it is, we meet Charles "Chip" Bohlen (Gareth Saxe), a "former" U.S. State Department official. (Those quotation marks, which are Nelson's, might or might not be considered a spoiler.)

Ironically, and rather embarrassingly, Nelson deserves no credit at all for the unquestionable highlight of the show: a pas de deux from Orpheus, gorgeously danced by Alonso and Rosen. For a few precious moments, the audience is transported. But sitting through two and a half hours of Nelson's enervating dramaturgy in order to enjoy six minutes of exquisite ballet is as unfair a bargain as enduring Master Class, Terrence McNally's puerile play about Maria Callas, just to savor three or four great operatic arias sung by the supporting cast. Other than the performance of the pas de deux and a few scenes devoted specifically to the creation of the ballet, Nikolai consists of tedious chatter about nothing important, interspersed with moments during which various characters seek counsel from Nikolai for various problems. Nelson tries to use the presence of the Bohlen character to drum up some suspense, but to no avail.

Over and above the myriad infelicities of the play itself, the production is hampered by a weird conceit whereby the Russian characters, who are supposedly speaking Russian (though, of course, the actors are actually speaking English), use American accents when conversing with each other - but when they address the American characters, they adopt Russian accents so thick that they sound like Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Indeed, the actors sometimes switch accents from one line to the next and back again, creating an unintended comic effect.

One can only guess whether the accent switching is in the script or was the brainstorm of director David Cromer, who does a good job of directing traffic on the Newhouse stage but, not being a magician, fails to make the goings-on interesting to the audience. Cromer had a wonderful success with his Off-Broadway staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, another play with lots of characters; but Wilder was a great playwright who knew it would be a mistake to write multiple scenes in which a dozen or more people are all on stage at once and all have something to say, thus confusing the audience and competing for its attention.

The acting in Nikolai and the Others is excellent overall, and it's always a pleasure to see Cerveris, Glover, Brown, Kunken, and Saxe on stage - not to mention Epstein, one of the theater's most highly respected veteran performers. But their efforts here are pretty much for naught because, as the saying goes, you can't get blood from a stone. The show's design elements —sets by Marsha Ginsberg, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Ken Billington —are first-rate, as one would expect from these artists and from a Lincoln Center production. The sets are particularly impressive as they change to show us different areas of the farmhouse, but even here there's a problem: The actors themselves do much of the furniture moving, etc. in full view of the audience (and in costume, of course), but they're sometimes joined by stagehands in mufti. The effect is jarring enough to effectively destroy whatever sense of time and place has been created.

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky are long deceased. Maria Tallchief died less than a month ago, presumably without having seen or read this play. While her character is treated respectfully enough (though with little depth) by Nelson, she likely would have been nonplussed by Nikolai and the Others, in which the author has focused on cultural icons making great art but has managed to come up with a play boring enough to send an incurable insomniac off to dreamland. Prior to this unwise expenditure of time, talent, and money, Lincoln Center Theater produced Two Shakespearean Actors as well as Nelson's mean-spirited, off-putting Some Americans Abroad. So it seems the company has a major commitment to the author, but that commitment is difficult to understand.

Nikolai and the Others
Through June 16
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutres with one intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 13 and under. Children under the age of 5 are not permitted in the theatre.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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