I feel I’ve had to do almost as much research as the actors who perform in the Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Richard Nelson’s Nikolai and the Others. That’s because so many of the 18 characters who inhabit it are major figures in the world of music and ballet in the America of the late 1940s. I had heard of all, or nearly all, but I knew virtually nothing about their offstage lives.
The play covers the evening of a dinner party at the Westport, Connecticut home of Lucia Davidova, a confidant of George Balanchine the choreographer, and we are privy to the setting up of the table on the back terrace, to the dinner itself, to the cleanup and the conversations that lead them at last to bed at day’s end.
Two of the guests are Vera and Igor Stravinsky. The occasion is the birthday of Sergei Sudeikin, a set designer and Vera’s former husband. These five and their fellow weekenders are virtually all Russian emigrés, and here they are joined by family and friends, all of whom but one speak Russian. Others at the gathering are George Balanchine and his wife Maria Tallchief, the young ballerina who is his muse, Serge Kousevitsky, the actor Vladimir Sokoloff and his wife Lisa. I could go on, but I’m certain by now you’re involved and sufficiently confused. I felt much like a dinner guest at a party in which everyone knew everyone except me, and I knew no one.
It’s Mr. Nelson’s contention (and here I quote from an interview he gave to the Lincoln Center Theater Review) that “basically, the order of this play is a dinner, followed by an artistic presentation, followed by people going to bed.” He goes further to tell us that “here we have artists, all immigrants, all trying to survive in America in 1948, a time when there were huge push-pulls on Russian immigrants.” By this he means that the U.S. government was beginning to question anyone who had ties to Russia because of the start of the Cold War; at the same time it was trying to win the hearts and minds of left-leaning but non-Communist Western Europeans, and to do that that America needed to be presented with a culture that was actually high art, especially avant-garde. So it began funding organizations that produced such art, and the group in the play was one of its beneficiaries.
In the evening we spend with them, Balanchine and Stravinsky are completing the creation of the ballet Orpheus which will be featured in the legendary inaugural season of the New York City Ballet. It is Richard Nelson’s further suggestion that great art is created in the midst of ordinary days and nights, so he has written his play to “actually present a world with all of its connections, and confusions and layers and contradictions, in an intimate way.” He thinks of the intimacy as allowing an audience to just sit there as a fly on the wall. The best responses to his trio of “Apple Family” plays, of which this is one, have always been: “I felt like I shouldn’t be there. I felt it was too intimate, it was too private.” My feelings, exactly, and spoken by the author himself.
As always, the Lincoln Center Theatre, this time under the meticulous direction of David Cromer, has produced superbly, and in the intimate Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, we are virtually inches from the terrace on which these 18 characters intermingle and later dance sections of the ballet as it being polished by its two creators, Balanchine and Stravinsky.
I found it odd that this enormous cast is housed in the much smaller basement theatre at Lincoln Center, underneath the vast Beaumont, in which wonderful Holland Taylor is playing Governor Ann Richards — all by herself! Not that I minded the intimacy but the arrangement did bring out the curious cat in me.
The performances are rich and beautifully melded into a fluid whole. The always interesting Michael Cerveris creates a Balanchine who is lithe and creative and absolutely charming. Though not a dancer, he moves like one, and his liquidity extends even up into his vocal cords; his voice is silky smooth but commanding.
John Glover’s Stravinsky is eccentric and electric and completely convincing. Blair Brown, now fully mature and into character work, creates a totally at home, always positive Vera. She and Mr. Glover have been husband and wife in several plays of the past, and they work beautifully together in this one as well. Alvin Epstein, a true veteran, plays the aged Sudeikin with great wit, showing us a lion in winter who still feels the competitive spirit, a man who still wants desperately to be involved in creating art, and not happy about being lumbered by a weakening body.
There are others, for it’s a beautifully orchestrated cast. The play must be great fun to act, because almost all are onstage all the time, and as Blair Brown said about plays that are written for an ensemble rather than for a star or two: “It’s precisely because these plays are never really on any one person’s shoulders that you do have time to make a life, which is most fun for actors anyway.”
I learned a lot seeing Nikolai and the Others. And it stimulated my research so that I might learn more. But I wish it were as much fun for audiences as it is for the actors who play it.
– Mr. Seff attended a preview performance of this play. –
Nikolai and the Others is onstage at Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam) New York NY
10023 . Details and tickets