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Theatre in Review: Nikolai and the Others (Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse)

Photo: Paul Kolnik

In play after play, Richard Nelson has specialized in creating communities of the alienated, tiny communities of like-minded souls who find themselves out of sync with the larger world. The most obvious example is the trio (soon to be quartet) of Apple Family plays, which explore the political disaffection, in the era of Barack Obama and the Tea Party, of a family of Upstate New York liberals. More often, physical and spiritual displacements are joined together: Think of the anglophilic American tourists floundering in the British countryside in Some Americans Abroad; the colony of Brits holed up in a country house in New England; the sexually conflicted tribe of American filmmakers shooting in Rome, in Rodney's Wife. Each of these little enclaves is examined in minute detail; in his view, even the tiniest exchange can be revelatory.

Nelson has traded in the microscope for a wide-angle lens in Nikolai and the Others, which focuses on a large group of Russian émigrés spending a weekend in the Connecticut countryside in 1948. Lucia Davidova, our hostess, has some distinguished names on her guest list, including her great friends George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. An equally august, if less-well-known, invitee is the elderly Sergei Sudeikin, a noted set designer for the Ballets Russes and Metropolitan Opera -- he also designed the original production of Porgy and Bess -- now sadly forgotten and living in squalor. The Nikolai of the title is Nikolai Nabokov, a cousin of Vladimir Nabokov and a composer of some note. A perusal of the first few names of the 18-strong cast shows how tightly Nelson has woven his web: The others include Vera Stravinsky, wife of Igor and ex-wife of Sudeikin; Natasha Nabokov, Nikolai's first wife, now engaged to Aleksi Karpov, a piano teacher; Vladimir Sokoloff, a graduate of the Moscow Art Theatre and a character actor on Broadway and in Hollywood; Lisa, his wife, and Vera's best friend; and Kolya, Balanchine's rehearsal pianist and Sudeikin's nephew. Got that? If you attend Nikolai and the Others, you will spend much of the first 20 minutes or so consulting your program, sorting out who is who. "Today, there are more Russians in Westport than in Moscow," comments Balanchine; certainly there are more Russians at Lincoln Center Theater than since The Coast of Utopia played its last performance.

Because of the large and densely interrelated cast of historical characters, many of them obscure, and also because of its deliberate pace, Nelson's play has been criticized by some for being a snooty, undramatic piece of work. To my mind, this is nonsense; Nikolai and the Others is a literate and richly detailed piece that demands, and rewards, the audience's concentration. Under David Cromer's highly observant direction, each little exchange among the characters yields a multitude of revelations. The tone is set early on in a quietly breathtaking moment when the assembled guests face stage right in anticipation of Sudeikin's appearance; the frail old man enters after a dramatic pause and, with some difficulty, embraces Vera, saying, with deep feeling, "She was my wife." Suddenly, we see the ties that continue to bind him and Vera years after and thousands of miles away from the moment they fell in love.

There are many other such revelations. Sudeikin slyly baits Balanchine for working on Broadway musicals, leading Stravinsky to cut in, announcing with wounded pride, "I could write a musical." "I can always remember my friend's failures," adds Sudeikin, betraying a certain unbecoming satisfaction about a friend's recent artistic disaster. "Isn't it nice to be just speaking Russian?" someone asks, words that will take on a slightly harsher meaning when Maria Tallchief, Balanchine's wife, appears and finds herself unable to understand a word anyone says. Balanchine describes seeing the film The Red Shoes, snickering at its implausibilities; after all, he says, the film's impresario should be thrilled that his prima ballerina is in love with the troupe's young composer; that way, he can easily keep them both under his thumb.

This last remark says a great deal more than it first appears to. Everyone in Nikolai and the Others is an artist or a fellow traveler, but no one suffers from Romantic bursts of inspiration: For them, art is a hard, practical, often backbreaking activity. Sokoloff has just emerged from a failed production of Crime and Punishment, and he isn't shy about pointing up the shortcomings of the star, John Gielgud. Sudeikin is desperate to work and complains that no one will hire him. In an extended sequence at the end of Act I, everyone retires to the barn where Balanchine and Stravinsky, working with Maria and the dancer Nicholas Magallanes, rehearse a bit of the ballet Orpheus. As they pore painstakingly over the details of each musical passage and dance movement, something extraordinary starts to emerge. (It's also a treat to see the dancers Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen performing in the intimate confines of the Newhouse.)

Nabokov earns protagonist status largely because everyone else has grown dependent on him. He works for the Voice of America, acting as a kind of fixer for Russian émigrés worried about their status in red-scare America: Vera never officially divorced Sudeikin -- all records of their marriage were lost in the Russian Revolution -- and now she fears the government is investigating her and Igor. Nikolai promises to make a few phone calls on her behalf. Sokoloff has run afoul of the government for having appeared in Song of Russia, a Hollywood film that promoted our wartime ally, Russia -- now a politically incorrect artifact. Nikolai offers to help clear the actor's name but casually warns him that he may be required to testify before the HUAC.

Nikolai's privileged position is upset by the arrival of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, accompanied by Charles "Chip" Bohlen, a State Department official whose fluency in Russian and assured manner strikes a note of unease among the others, and with good reason: Bohlen is Nikolai's handler, the man responsible for Nikolai's powers of persuasion. The US, Bohlen asserts, suffers from a global image as a nation of hicks; his assignment is to collect big cultural names like Balanchine and Stravinsky and reposition them as good Americans in the public eye. At the same time, he wants to make sure he is dealing in high-quality goods, so he collects every available bit of information about them, the better to pressure them with when they rebel against him. (At the moment, he is concerned with keeping Balanchine from taking a job at La Scala in Milan, where he will be of no use to the United States.) Bohlen is capable of shocking brutality, destroying a man's self-confidence if it keeps him in line; in one example of this, he informs Nikolai, who wants to leave his government position and return to composing, that Stravinsky, Balanchine, and the others are laughing at him behind his back, describing him as a hack who long ago surrendered his talent.

Cromer's production contains one of the finest ensemble performances to be seen in New York in years, led by Stephen Kunken's Nikolai, whose self-assertion ("I am a composer") weakens as he finds himself trapped in the role of universal problem-solver. There are also notably fine contributions by Blair Brown as Vera, her benign smile hiding a multitude of anxieties about the future; Kathryn Erbe and Haviland Morris as Balanchine's female confidantes ("We're like his nuns, Nicky," says Morris, weary of a life of one-way devotion); John Procaccino as Sokoloff, wryly demonstrating how his Russian accent gets him cast as Italians, Spaniards, and even Chinese characters; Michael Cerveris as Balanchine, hiding his crafty nature behind a patronizing, world-weary smile; John Glover as Stravinsky, who frankly uses Nikolai to get himself a commission; Lauren Culpepper as a young woman who will do anything to get Balanchine's attention; and Gareth Saxe as Chip, whose genial nature never disguises the steel underneath. Alvin Epstein is especially effective as Sudeikin, whose diminished powers do not extend to his acidly observant tongue.

The action unfolds on Marsha Ginsberg's sets, which depict the cottage's shabby exterior and chic interior, as well as the interior of the barn where Orpheus is rehearsed. Ken Billington's lighting creates some stunning effects, including enormous shadows on the wall as the dancers work and a series of noirish looks, seemingly illuminated only by the practical lamps on stage, during a series of late-night confrontations. Jane Greenwood's meticulously conceived costumes add volumes of information about the financial and social status of each character; needless to say, her grasp of period fashion is beyond compare. Daniel Kluger's sound ranges from the sound of arriving cars to excerpts from a composition by an old colleague of Stravinsky and Nikolai.

Nikolai and the Others isn't filled with big scenes, stunning revelations, or twists of fortune. But it is packed with telling moments from beginning to end, and it arguably represents Nelson's finest group portrait to date. Nikolai and his compatriots are permanently separated from their homeland and not really at ease in the prosperous new world that has taken them in. Their only refuge is in their work, which, at least temporarily, transports them to another, more secure, plane of existence. -- David Barbour

(14 May 2013)

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