NEW YORK (AP) — What a thrill it must have been to be present during artistic collaborations between performing arts legends like George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky.
Richard Nelson's intimate, bittersweet new drama, "Nikolai and the Others," about the immortality of art, showcases a purely imaginary country weekend in the lives of a group of famous Russian emigres in America that depicts those two great talents working together, surrounded by supportive friends.
The richly detailed drama, which opened Monday night at Lincoln Center, is set in the spring of 1948, when the Cold War between former World War II allies America and the Soviet Union is under way. While the U.S. government is generously funding cultural activities of the group's members, the menacing shadow of CIA agents with confusing agendas haunts everyone's activities, public and private.
Nelson skillfully encapsulates the complexities of these emigres' lives as they struggle with artistic ambitions, memories of past loves, yearning for their long-lost homeland, and current-day political issues that require strategic approaches to even minor activities.
In all, 18 actors are deployed with assurance by director David Cromer on the compact thrust stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which is beautifully designed with sophisticated period touches by Marsha Ginsberg. Cromer successfully creates a Chekhovian atmosphere with Nelson's script, with some characters reminiscing out loud while others experience quiet, sometimes rueful epiphanies.
The Russians are gathering at the comfortable, bohemian farmhouse of Lucia Davidova, (Haviland Morris, quietly resonant), in rural Westport, Conn. They plan to celebrate the name day of a beloved but extremely ill old friend, renowned set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein, masterfully hamming it up.)
The central figure in the play is composer Nikolai ("Nicky") Nabokov, who now works with the State Department doing favors for his Russian friends regarding documents, permissions, and the like. Stephen Kunken emanates a slightly melancholy helpfulness as Nicky, whose time-consuming diplomatic role has distanced him from his art. As he watches the creative process of his friends Stravinsky and Balanchine, he becomes inspired to begin composing again.
The group is privileged to enjoy a private rehearsal of the Stravinsky-Balanchine's gestating avant-garde ballet "Orpheus," which would soon premiere and be hailed as a masterpiece. John Glover is an energetic, thoughtful Stravinsky. Feisty yet practical, Igor curries favor with the mistrusted CIA operative who turns up unexpectedly, while reminding Nicky it's just what they have to do.
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