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Theatre in Review: Fire and Air (Classic Stage Company)

John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Marin Mazzie. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Fire and Air, Terrence McNally takes on what may be his greatest challenge: He tries to make us sympathize with a producer. And not just any producer -- the play revolves around Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes and official greeter for modern art in all its forms. By sheer force of will, he dragged ballet into the modern era, enlisting as collaborators such firebrands as Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso, and initiating the tempestuous relationship with the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, which would yield such milestone works as L'après-midi d'un faune, described by the dance critic Joan Acocella as "one of the most influential dance works of the twentieth century," before ending in betrayal and madness.

A legendary go-getter with a masterly skill for manipulating others, Diaghilev assembled some of the most brilliant and volatile artists of his time, enlisting their talents in the mission of saving ballet from its floweriest nineteenth-century excesses. One wouldn't be surprised to hear that he needed a whip and a chair to wrangle the likes of Stravinsky, Picasso, the set designer Léon Bakst, and the circle of composers known as Les Six; he also wielded a big stick at rehearsals, pounding the floor to register his dissatisfaction with the work on view. He lived like a prince, flattering an army of wealthy patrons into parting with their francs, yet he rarely paid his bills. His dancers were often pitifully undercompensated; Nijinsky never earned a salary, and eventually sued to get some of the monies owed to him, morally if not by contract. Diaghilev was also a walking encyclopedia of phobias, fretting constantly about germs and fearing death by water. And, before and after Nijinsky, there was a parade of male lovers; at a time when the Oscar Wilde affair could be said to have had a chilling effect on gay life in Europe, Diaghilev never felt the need to hide his passion for those of his own sex.

Such a temperament surely could provide the motor for a tempestuous drama about a tumultuous moment in the history of modernism, but McNally is in icon-painting mode, and Fire and Air is a largely static affair, presenting Diaghilev as a martyr to art, an aesthetic freedom fighter who died for our sins. This is a much harder sell. "Did you know I was a god, Dunya?" he asks his long-suffering nurse. "A god with boils," he adds, and indeed his upper body is rank with sores. His sensitivity isn't only physical: "I have a shrewd eye," he notes, "a heart too close to bursting when in the presence of beauty -- and very little patience with the ordinary." Later, in his own defense, he offers, "I invented the twentieth century. I chose to make the world a more beautiful place. It's a noble calling that requires ignoble means to succeed." Dismissing his creditors, he snaps, "Anyone who becomes an artist to make money is an idiot." (This sort of dialogue, less early twentieth century that Twentieth Century-Fox, is all too common in Fire and Air.) He can be brought to tears by an especially beautiful bolt of cloth purchased for a new costume, yet, in a moment of fury, he demands, "I am drowning in geniuses. And I'm the one who must endure their tantrums. When is it my turn to erupt?"

Actually, in Fire and Air, any time is ripe for a Diaghilev conniption fit; we never see him doing much of anything else. The man who galvanized an art form is missing in action, replaced by a tetchy figure who occupies center stage, issuing oracular pronouncements and grandly making lists of his life's dissatisfactions, as witnessed by the members of his extremely indulgent entourage, who follow him from city to city, feeding him lines. The first act focuses on Diaghilev's relationship with Nijinsky, portrayed, probably with justification, as a constant power struggle in which the younger man usually had the upper hand. After Nijinsky rashly marries and is cast out of the inner circle, Act II features Leonide Massine, his replacement, who is willing to slip into Diaghilev's bed if it means becoming the next Nijinsky. "I want you to see the great possibilities in me that you saw in him," he tells Diaghilev. "If I have to dance one more Giselle I'll kill myself."

As played by Douglas Hodge, Diaghilev is a tangle of mannerisms, a series of grand gestures without an organizing principle. Some lines are delivered in a dreamy monotone, others are hissed in a froth of rage. He is dyspeptic, pretentious, usually irritated, utterly convinced that death is just around the corner. Auditioning Massine, he orders him to partially disrobe, then throws himself at the young man's feet, kissing them; he remains on the ground for nearly a full scene. At times, his attention apparently wanders, and one isn't sure if Diaghilev is lost in reverie or Hodge is searching for his lines. More than once, it seems as if the actor's performance is still a work in progress.

At least John Doyle's direction gives these often-aimless proceedings the fluidity of a dream, and he has assembled a notably overqualified supporting cast. James Cusati-Moyer's Nijinsky has matinee-idol looks -- he spends most of the play barely dressed -- and he effectively communicates the character's desperation to break free from his stifling lover/mentor. He doesn't try to suggest the character's incipient insanity, although, to be fair, he gets little help from the script in this regard. Jay Armstrong Johnson brings some much-needed tension to the proceedings as Massine, here portrayed as a callow boy, in a hurry to be a star. (In a memorable fantasy encounter, Nijinsky cozies up to Massine, saying, "I've never kissed anyone beautiful. My wife is very kind, but she isn't beautiful.") As Dimitry, Diaghilev's cousin and former lover, John Glover, has some touching moments, not least when he gently inquires if they might not take up where they left off so many years before. Neither Marin Mazzie, as Misia Sert, Diaghilev's patron and private banker, nor Marsha Mason, as the ever-faithful Dunya, has much of anything to do, but it's nice to have them around.

Doyle has provided one of his spare set designs, angling a large mirror (with a gilded frame) over the deck, and placing a nearly identical mirror -- complete with ballet barre -- upstage. Locations are suggested by the lighting designer Jane Cox, who skillfully mixes primary reds, blues, and yellows to create a variety of atmospheres; her golden Venetian sunshine look is particularly attractive. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes feature flattering period silhouettes with a black-on-black palette; she also provides an authentic-seeming replica of Nijinsky's famous faun costume. Matt Stine's sound design blends such effects as bells, train engines, and irate audiences with musical selections from Debussy and Tchaikovsky.

Fire and Air is a kind of companion piece with Golden Age (seen in 2012), another McNally lives-of-the-artists drama, about the composer Vincenzo Bellini. In both works, the playwright's famous wit seems to have gone on holiday, and he seems to be struggling to say something profound about the making of art. Dimitry eulogizes Diaghilev as "a man whose only talent was other people." It's too bad we don't see that talent put to use. -- David Barbour

(2 February 2018)

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