Cold War Rattles Russian Geniuses in ‘Nikolai’: Review

Richard Nelson’s inspired new play, “Nikolai and the Others” bristles with compelling ideas and complex characters in equal measure.

A pastoral drama with several ballet sequences and a cast of 18 that includes some of the best acting talent alive is crammed onto the vest-pocket stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse.

Upstairs in Lincoln Center Theater’s spacious Vivian Beaumont flagship, meanwhile, the inflated solo show “Ann” limps along, a rental production playing to near-empty houses.

There’s something wildly wrong with this picture.

“Nikolai” takes place in the spring of 1948 at the country home of the composer Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) and his wife Vera (Blair Brown).

The guests, most of whom have come out to Connecticut from New York, include the choreographer George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso), his wife and muse and her dancing partner (Michael Rosen).

There’s also the conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place) and the actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and his acerbic wife Lisa (Betsy Aidem).

It’s a working weekend; the composer and choreographer are creating “Orpheus,” one of their many collaborations. It’s also a celebratory occasion, honoring the aging set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), formerly married to Vera.

The Fixer

And, finally, it’s a politically suffused event. Among the many Russian-born guests is Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), cousin of the “Lolita” author. Nicky is an underappreciated composer and “fixer” probably connected to the nascent CIA, who takes care of all sorts of things for the emigre artists.

The Cold War has begun to boil. A leitmotif of fear underscores the times: anti-communist witch hunts are just getting underway at home, and the U.S. is aggressively hawking its cultural brand overseas. In a telling exchange, Vera quietly asks Nicky to pass along to President Truman Igor’s arrangement for the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“I’m sure it’s very special,” Nikolai says. “Better than what we’ve got.”

That’s enough for three plays at least. But such layered realities are a specialty of Nelson’s. He delights in getting underneath the headlines of public events, as he did in such large scale works as “Two Shakespearean Actors:” and chamber works like his recent, brilliant Apple family plays.

Comic Accents

We come to understand that the Russians’ flawless English represents their native tongue; when addressing the few Americans in their midst, their perfect English suddenly becomes comically accented. It’s a clever way to let us in on the dishy things they have to say about the “others.”

It’s all the director, David Cromer, can do to keep these characters and a dozen others from tripping over one another on Marsha Ginsberg’s Westport farmhouse set, which must be disassembled and reconfigured by a small platoon of stage hands simply to move from sun parlor to studio to living room.

But the atmosphere is also deliciously established by Jane Greenwood’s perfect period artsy mufti of sensuous, free-flowing silks, khakis and earthy country-esquire tweeds. And this company of actors is simply spectacular, headed by Cerveris’s smoothly masterful Balanchine.

Ballet master Jeff Edwards oversees some Balanchine choreography for the beautifully paired Alonso and Rosen in an all-too constricting space.

The unhappy fixer at the center of this constellation, as the title makes clear, is who most interests the playwright. He is father confessor, fund raiser and shrink, rolled into one put-upon man. And so “Nikolai and the Others,” like the Chekhov plays it emulates, spends more time simmering than exploding in dramatic fireworks. In another drama, Nicky might eventually head offstage, gun in hand. Not here.

The play has its longueurs. But it’s also rich in emotional detail and in its evocation of an era in culture deserving of examination and interpretation. And it belongs upstairs, not in the basement.

Through June 16 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatrer, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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