The first Richard Nelson play I ever saw was SOME AMERICANS ABROAD, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company with terrible American accents (Twenty years ago, British actors had not mastered American accents. Now they star as Americans on half our tv shows). Nelson's latest play is NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS, which could be subtitled SOME RUSSIANS ABROAD; for, all but three of the eighteen characters are Russian emigrees to America. Though many of these people left Russia forty years ago when they were children or teenagers, they still consider themselves Russian. At this weekend at a Connecticut home in 1948, they insist on speaking Russian, even when there are non-Russian speakers in the room (rude, I thought). Nelson has effectively used the conceit that his actors only use Russian accents on the rare occasions when they speak English. His Russians clearly feel that they are culturally superior to the land they live in -- that they have brought culture to America. Of course, some members of this group are high cultural celebrities: Composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer George Balanchine, conductor Serge Koussevitsky. The women are wives, ex-wives or acolytes to Balanchine and Stravinsky. This is a small, parochial, incestuous, and snobbish group. The only non-Russians are Balanchine's current wife, the great ballerina Maria Tallchief (Balanchine cheats on her with a teenage would-be ballerina), dancer Nicholas Magallanes and an American red hunter (this is the age of the anti-Communist witch hunts). Balanchine and Stravinsky are busy creating their ballet, ORPHEUS, which will star Magallanes and Tallchief (we see some of the ballet rehearsed), but the focus of the weekend is the name day of the groups eldest member, Sergey Sudeiken, the ex-husband of Vera Stravinsky and a designer who no longer can get work. As a name day present, the group pays Magallanes to stay in the room with Sudeikin, so the old man can watch the beautiful young man sleep.
As the title suggests, the central character is composer Nicolai Nabokov. Nicky, as he is called, hasn't written a note in years and spends most of his time working for the U.S. government in their effort to find the communists in the Russian community. Nicky sees his role as one that allows him to help his Russian friends who, during much of the weekend come to him asking for favors and advice. While his so-called friends need him and his contacts, they have little respect for him because he is no longer an active artist. Over the weekend, Nicky goes through two personal crises. Watching the great artists work on ORPHEUS convinces him that he has to cut his ties with the government and go back to being a working artist. When he tries to do this, Chip, the government red hunter, tells him the cruel things his Russian friends have said about him behind his back and also makes clear that he can't cut his ties with the government. At the end, Nicky is watching Stravinsky, Balanchine and Magallanes rehearse. He is no longer an active artist and he can no longer trust his friends; nonetheless, this is his world. This is family for these self-absorbed people and we watch their affection for each other and their small and large betrayals. There's nothing melodramatic here. When Balanchine has his way in the barn with the teenager (offstage), the others know. There are looks, but no direct comment. The women all adore or worship George. To them, his at times predatory sex with real and would-be dancers is part of his genius. They have no respect for George's young American wife, even though she is one of the world's great dancers. She is not Russian and she is a racial other (Native American). When she is in the room, the other women continue to speak in Russian (again, rude). Setting Magallanes up with Sergei is to them the nice thing to do. Nelson never judges his characters. Like many of Chekhov's people, they are narcissistic, oblivious of the consequences of that they say and do and without much empathy.
Throughout this quasi-Chekhovian play (THE SEA GULL is even quoted at one point), Nelson is concerned with questions about the making of art. Whatever Balanchine's and Stravinsky's failings as human beings, they are busy creating a work of genius. Making art is so much their focus that the human stuff gets left by the wayside. The others wish they were like that and bask in the reflected glory.
I found NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS constantly absorbing, but I came to the play with a fair amount of knowledge about its historical characters. I must note that at least a quarter of the audience left at intermission and it was quite clear from their conversation on the way out that some had no idea who Balanchine was, though his work is being danced a few yards away by the company he founded at the Koch Theatre. To my horror, I heard one person ask another who Igor was! So much for cultural literacy even among New York theater goers (and yes, I am a troglodyte, a believer in cultural literacy!). David Cromer is always great at ensemble pieces that demand realistic acting and emotional honesty and he has staged the play beautifully in that tricky space. I was way over on the side in the Mitzi Newhouse theatre, and never felt left out of the action. What a group of actors he has assembled! It's difficult to single anyone out. Veteran Alvin Epstein was superb as old Sergey, who feels dead already because he no longer is asked to work as an artist. Blair Brown perfectly captured Vera's dutiful devotion to her ex-husband, whom she left because he wasn't famous enough, and her adoration of the famous Stravinsky. Michael Cerveris and John Glover were an excellent team -- the emotionally (though not sexually) reticent Balanchine who, as someone says, "keeps his cards to his chest", and the voluble Stravinsky who loves to talk. The two dancers, Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen as Tallchief and Magallanes, managed to dance Balanchine's difficult choreography acceptably (few can dance this choreography as well as Tallchief and Magallanes) and act touchingly. Rosen was particularly good in the final scene, stuck in a room with everyone speaking a language he doesn't understand. Stephen Kunken touchingly acted Nikolai's hurt silences.
Thanks to the Lincoln Center Theater for giving us this large, eighteen character work in such an excellent production. What a year for the Lincoln Center Theater. Bartlett Sher's production of Odets's GOLDEN BOY (even more characters!), was one of my favorite productions of the past season. THE NANCE is an ambitious, important, intelligent, entertaining and touching play. I'm shocked that it isn't up for the Tony for Best Play (but neither is Craig Wright's GRACE, also a fine, thought-provoking work). And Chris Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is lightweight but delightful. That's an amazing season for any theater anywhere in the world.
NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS. Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater. May 30, 2013.