In Richard Nelson’s new play, “Nikolai and the Others,” George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Tallchief and a full complement of other notable Russian emigres spend a Chekhovian weekend together in 1948 at a country house in Westport, Conn. Food is consumed, art is discussed, and secrets are bared — quite stylishly, in fact, under David Croner’s helming. But the essential take on this is that famous people can be just as dull as regular folks on a lazy weekend in the country.
Drawing on the packaging skills of savvy designers Marsha Ginsberg (sets), Ken Billington (lighting), and Daniel Kluger (sound), helmer Croner actualizes a key doctrine of Nelsonian dramaturgy — that significant, even momentous events always seem to be happening just out of sight in the next room, where “real” life is being lived by other people.
The all-important setting is a picturesque farmhouse where the Russian emigres have come together in 1948 to celebrate the birthday of the eldest among them, the set designer Sergey Sudeikin, played by Alvin Epstein with one foot in the grave.
The personal relationships here are the very devil to figure out, especially among the doormat wives and ex-wives who live to serve their famous men. But for all the geniuses in this elite company, the most important person in any room is always Nikolai Nabokov (soulfully played by Stephen Kunken). Never heard of Nikolai Nabokov? He was a composer who gave up his art to work for the CIA, which in those days was buying hearts and minds by funding art and artists. As far as all the needy artists in this crowd are concerned, he’s the “fixer” who can solve their problems.
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Not that any of this comes out in a straightforward manner in Nelson’s oblique approach to playwriting.
In Act One, the guests gather on the front porch, where the women are setting up tables for the first course of this elaborate birthday feast. “Today there are more Russians in Westport than in Moscow,” someone jokes at the sight of them all. But for all the coming and going and catching-up on the porch, the sounds of genuine joy and laughter all seem to be coming from inside the house.
For Act Two, the set turns a full 180 degrees, exposing the comfortable study where characters slip in to have a quiet word or two with Nikolai. And of course, all the fun is happening out of sight, on the porch.
With so many artists on the premises, there’s the expectation that something artistic will eventually surface. And in fact, something does. That singular historic event is the unveiling of “Orpheus,” which the choreographer Balanchine (played with compelling charisma by Michael Cerveris) and composer Stravinsky (John Glover, slyly hinting at the composer’s unruly personality) have been working on for two years.
Rosemary Dunleavy has used Balanchine’s original choreography to stage the final pas de deux, which is beautifully performed by Natalia Alonso (as Maria Tallchief) and Michael Rosen (as Nicholas Magallanes). But even though it’s the centerpiece of the play, the ballet does little to change or even illustrate the events of the play, which drift by more or less aimlessly.
What matters more than action is the collective mood of these expats, who are keenly aware of the uncertain political climate in the early days of the Cold War when Russia was beginning its transformation from friend to foe. Even in the middle of the woods, friends warn one another to be “careful” about the tone of their jokes. “We must all be Americans here,” Stravinsky says.
For all these fascinating bits and pieces, nothing coalesces in this play and absolutely nothing happens. Nelson has used the same indirect mode of dramaturgy with far more success in his series of Apple Family Plays, so we know it works. But there are no intelligent and impassioned Apples around here.
This insular crowd is so self-contained and suspicious, so deeply distrustful of anyone outside their immediate circle (you should hear what the women have to say about the American-born Tallchief) that even their soul-baring moments feel false. Although these temperamental Russian artists might pass for artists, they don’t seem very temperamental — or even Russian.