Fire and Air could not have looked more promising –a starry cast performing a new play by Terrence McNally about one of the most celebrated of dance companies, the Ballets Russes.
Picasso, Matisse, and Coco Chanel designed their sets; Debussy, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss composed their music. George Balanchine created nine of their ballets when in his twenties.
And at the center of the Ballets Russes was its impresario Sergei Diaghilev; its greatest dancer Vaslav Nijinksy; and the tempestuous relationship between the two.
Who better to dramatize all this than the playwright who won one of his four Tony Awards for Master Class, presenting the opera singer Maria Callas as impetuous, passionate, enlightening and inspiring?
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
As with Callas in Master Class, Diaghilev in Fire and Air is certainly impetuous and passionate. He is also melancholic and hypochondriac, as portrayed by Douglas Hodge, who won Broadway audiences over as Albin in La Cages Aux Folles a decade ago. We are meant to see Diaghilev as great, albeit in a different way than a Callas.
“People are saying you created me,” Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer) says to the impresario.
Diaghilev disagrees. “I introduced you to yourself,” he tells his protege. “I allowed you to discover your greatness.”
Yet, Fire and Air, though finely acted and designed, is ultimately too diffuse, imprecise and precious to allow the audience to discover Diaghilev’s greatness; it offers us too little in the way of enlightenment.
The Diaghilev of the play is a man fearful of water and of death, who surrounds himself with those most dedicated to him. Marsha Mason is his humble, devoted servant Dunya. Marin Mazzie is Misia, his elegant and dedicated patron, who is willing to spend her husband’s money on Diahgilev’s most fanciful ideas. John Glover plays Dmitry, his older cousin and one-time mentor, whose love for him has never abated, and who is persuaded to handle the company’s finances, since that is not Diaghilev’s forte, nor his interest. “Love is more important than money. Art is more important than both,” he says airily, one of the many similar pronouncements that sound as if they might be witty, or at least revealing, but don’t much stand up to scrutiny or linger in the mind.
If these devotees surrounded Diaghilev, the impresario more or less singlehandedly surrounded his protégées – “suffocated” is the word Nijinsky uses in the play. There are scenes that involve the preparations for (or aftermath of) Nijinsky’s best known performances, which he also choreographed, especially The Afternoon of a Faun with music by Debussy, and The Rite of Spring composed by Stravinsky. But they do not register anywhere near as vividly as the older man’s obsession, primarily sexual, with the younger Nijinsky, and then, with Nijinsky’s successor, Leonide Massine, portrayed by Jay Armstrong Johnson.
A few words about the two younger actors: James Cusati-Moyer made his Broadway debut as the naked hustler in the revival last year of Six Degrees of Separation; Jay Armstrong Johnson has given impressive performances in New York for close to a decade; he was especially wonderful as one of the three male leads in On The Town in 2014. (He’s probably best known nationally now for his appearances last season on the TV series Quantico.) Both actors spend much of their time in Fire and Air as objects of desire, moving seductively in varying states of undress. This is, I’m sure, historically accurate. And they are both in good shape; I doubt anybody is going to object. But while there is much that is undeniably appealing about their presence, there is just a touch of the ludicrous in it as well, particularly during the two separate conversations between them that are both apparently meant as figments of Massine’s imagination. Massine requests advice on how to put up with Diaghilev’s attentions, and also how to overcome his own fears of dancing
“When you dance,” Nijinsky answers, “focus on the beam of light that is the soul of all creation.”
“I don’t understand,” Massine replies (and we sympathize!)
“Sergei Pavlovich will show you,” Nijinsky says. “Go, go!”
He meant Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev. I saw no follow-up beam, nor much else in the way of illumination.
Fire and Air is on stage at the Classic Stage Company (136 E 13th St, between Third and Fourth Avenues, New York, NY 10003) through February 25, 2018.
Tickets and details
Fire and Air, Written by Terrence McNally, directed and designed by John Doyle, Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Jane Cox, Sound Design by Matt Stine, featuring James Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky, John Glover as Dmitry, Douglas Hodge as Diaghilev, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Leonide Massine, Marsha Mason as Dunya, Marin Mazzie as Misia