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A CurtainUp Review
Nikolai and Others
By Elyse Sommer
First up on my Russian flavored week was the Encores! revival of On Your Toes (1936). It was a most enjoyable a reminder of how Russian emigres George Balanchine's choreography brought a ground breaking new marriage of jazz and ballet dancing to Broadway musicals.
Next up was the exciting expanded production of Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 . This musicalized excerpt of Leo Tolstoy's classic War and Peace was a vivid example of the continued evolution of musical theater's look and sound.
My Russian immersion ended on a more quiet and reflective note with Richard Nelson's Nikolai and Others. As the plot of On Your Toes focused on getting a traditional Russian ballet impresario to put on a young choreographer's jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (one of that show's two Balanchine ballets), so Nelson's play brings together a group of Russian emigres for a relaxing weekend of in a Connecticut farmhouse at a time when life in their new homeland is fraught with uncertainties and tensions caused by the Cold War as influenced by Churchill's 1948 Iron Curtain speech. .
Naturally, Balanchine is one of those present. He's now beginning a long collaboration with a composer from the classical music world, Igor Stravinsky. "Orpheus," the ballet they're working on was eventually produced by what was to become Balanchine's long time creative home, the New York City Ballet at City Center. While the play, unlike most of today's economically cast new plays, is weighed down by an overabundance of characters (some of whom are too unfamiliar and underdeveloped and thus confusing for the audience to get a handle on), Balanchine is one of the indispensable "Others" of the title.
The title's specific name goes to the lesser known composer Nikolai Nabokov. As the switchboard character whose role as the go-to-fixer for everyone has stalled his own artistic career, he thus embodies Nelson's theme.
Both Stephen Kunken and Michael Cerveris bring their characters to warm and vital life. Kunken is one of those actors whose name may not ring an instant bell with many theater goer even though he regularly performs admirably on and off Broadway. His latest portrayal is no exception. As Balanchine, Cerveris, one of our best musical theater thespians, proves that he can be superb even if he doesn't sing.
Other standouts among the play's seventeen "Others" are Blair Brown as Vera Stravinsky and her two husbands: John Glover as the current husband and Alvin Epstein as Sergey Sudeikin, the ailing painter and set designer whose name day is to be celebrated during the weekend. Brown's Vera convincingly lets us see her genuine affection for both men. Lauren Culpepper as Anna the young aspiring dancer and niece of the weekend hostess Lucia Davidowa (Haviland Morris) makes the most of an interchange with Balanchine that's Mr. Nelson's amusing bow to the Chekhovian picture of Russians who yearn for a time they can never recapture. his exchange bean amusing
While the Lincoln Center Theater Review as always beautifully and informatively fills audiences in on the play's historic setting and all the characters, Mr. Nelson might have borrowed a leaf from Natasha, Pierre & The Great 1812 Comet. As Dave Malloy fearlessly trimmed Tolstoy's epic, so Nelson might have felt less compelled to use all his research by cutting a few of the people attending his weekend. After all, he hasn't restricted his portrait of a group of people who actually existed to a factual setting but used his imagination to tell their story in an imagined event.
Nelson's device for handling the fact that the entire play is in English by having the characters speak without accents when converse in Russian, and with accents when they speak English is an interesting and effective device. However, like the over-sized cast this is at times more confusing than clarifying.
My complaint about just a few immigrant Russians too many notwithstanding, Nikolai and Others, does subtly build to a fully dimensioned picture of a particular group of people. Like all immigrants they must adjust to a new culture, but as a group of artists find themselves faced with the special dilemma of having to make decisions about not only dealing with a different culture but a suddenly hostile to them political climate.
The weekend spent with their fellow countrymen, feeling free to reminisce about their past and speak only their native tongue is perfectly suited to this playwright's typical slow-building style with its focus on the ordinary details of all human existence. The celebration of Sudeikin's birthday turns into a drama with his illness. The chance to watch Balanchine and Stravinsky work on their "Orpheus ïn its early stages triggers Nikolai's discomfort with his own desire to help his fellow countrymen but also reclaim his own artistic identity. Their need for his continued help and his means for doing so through the powerful "Chip" Bohlen finally takes the casual chatter, dinner preparations, consumption and cleaning up dinner preparations into more dramatic political territory.
The first scene's dinner setup, with the table setting, food serving, consuming and clearing up business, is similar to Nelson's wildly popular Apple family plays at the Public Theater, except that there are a lot more diners here so that not only must dishes and glasses be brought out, passed around and cleared away, but numerous tables and chairs hauled in and out to accommodate them.
Unlike the election day specific Apple Family Plays (That Hopey Changey Think , Sweet and Sad , Sorry ) which had a small cast and a large playing area but a single and very simple set, Nikolai and Others must fit this much larger cast onto the small Mitzi Newhouse stage (a bravo to David Cromer for steering them around fairly effortlessly). What's more, Marsha Ginsberg has designed a set that neatly swivels from the garden party with just a glimpse of the farm house interior, to a barn reminiscent of some of the buildings at the famous Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival for the Orpheus rehearsal, and then to a finely detailed study in the interior of the house.
Impressive as Ms. Ginsberg's skill in creating all these locations is, I couldn't help wondering why Lincoln Center rented its larger theater to the solo play Ann when the Mitzi would have serve it just as well if not better. That would have allowed Nelson's large cast to spread out on the larger stage and the triple scene set could have probably been created as effectively and less expensively.
The production values overall are outstanding. The ballet scenes are buoyed by Rosemary Dunleavy's expert staging and Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen's exquisite dancing.
Even with the visually exciting dance rehearsal and the emotional fireworks between Nikolai and "Chip" Bohlen this is not for those whose idea of a perfect night at the theater is a fast-paced, action filled play at the most two hours long. But after seeing Balanchine's peppy ballets in On Your Toes, and watching the constantly on the move, flashy Tolstoy inspired musical in its trendy and huge restaurant setting, I found this leisurely visit with Richard Nelson's Russians stimulating and satisfying in its own way.