The American theater suffers from a serious case of Chekhov envy. Dead almost 100 years, the great Russian has his fingerprints on nearly every wistful drama now produced. I’m not complaining; at least it’s not Strindberg. But Chekhov is easier to ape than to assimilate. His unhurried, sideways approach to the kill is too often mistaken for gentleness, a substitution that turns tension to mush and lets the quarry escape.
So Richard Nelson tempts fate in setting his wistful drama Nikolai and the Others, a Lincoln Center Theater production, among a bunch of sentimental Russians in a country house over a spring weekend. References to The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and, most overtly, The Seagull abound. The set is sun-dappled and wicker-filled. In the play’s first moment, a woman named Vera picks up her embroidery and says, “Nikolai Dimitrievich, I told Natasha you were here.” Can the samovar be far behind?
But Nelson’s opening gambit — an appetizer of red herring — pays off spectacularly in an engrossing work that transports Chekhov to the threshold of the Cold War. The country house isn’t in the Russian provinces but in Westport, Connecticut, and it’s 1948. The characters are exiles whose childhoods on large estates ended with the czar’s rule, decades earlier. And they are not, most of them, idle. Though they talk a lot, they don’t just talk; they are managing, midwifing, or directly making some of the twentieth century’s greatest art.
No amateur backyard theatrics here. In a series of marvelous scenes involving minimal dialogue, we watch George Balanchine work with the dancers Nicholas Magallanes and Maria Tallchief (Balanchine’s wife at the time) on what will soon be his watershed ballet, Orpheus. Its composer, Igor Stravinsky, is on hand to preview the work-in-progress and to add a few bars here and there as needed. (“How long it take you to die?” he asks Tallchief, counting beats.) Also in Westport for the weekend are a crowd of mid-century Russian émigré artists: Vladimir Sokoloff, a classical actor now playing a series of indistinguishably ethnic villains in Hollywood; the conductor Serge Koussevitsky; the composer Nikolai Nabokov (a cousin of Vladimir’s); and Sergey Sudeikin, a painter and set designer who has fallen on hard times. It is in the ailing Sudeikin’s honor that the guests are gathered, and for whom the assorted womenfolk are preparing a name-day party, busily lugging tables like stevedores while the men do little more than step out of their way. But the gender politics is deceptive; the women, too, are involved in the production of art, if less self-importantly: as confidantes, enablers, factotums, and minders.
Nelson’s very American quartet of plays about the Apple family, the last of which opens at the Public on November 22, features no more than a half-dozen characters each. Here, as befits a Russian tale, there are eighteen speaking roles: a lot to keep track of. Perhaps three or four could profitably have been cut, sparing the audience some initial confusion. But the director David Cromer handles the traffic with grace, and the busyness of so many people at work turns out to be crucial to Nelson’s point. In Chekhov, artists are dreamers, crippled by an attachment to a past they can neither recover nor dismiss; Balanchine and Stravinsky, on the other hand, are presented here as practical men for whom the making of art is another part of life to be enjoyed or endured as the case may be. It’s no accident that Nelson has focused the story on their creation of Orpheus, a ballet in which the title character, himself an artist, loses his lover in the act of saving her by looking back as he leads her from the underworld. For Balanchine and Stravinsky, there is no looking back; Russia is gone, Europe is gone, there is only the current lover, America. (Sex is also quite a practical matter for these men.) They are the opposite of dreamy: Balanchine, in Michael Cerveris’s movingly restrained performance, is punctilious and perfectly concrete; John Glover’s Stravinsky is a charming reptile, armed to survive anything. To them, art is sacred but does not plead for special attention or stand alone; while making his masterpiece, Balanchine has also been making katletka, pirozhki, and other homeland delicacies in the kitchen. And possibly making one of the visitors in the barn.
Not everyone is a Balanchine or a Stravinsky, however. Some of the artists have found their art less transferable, or are frightened because they once signed petitions or belonged to organizations now considered suspicious. This is where the outside world begins to be visible through the beautiful fabric of what at first appeared to be a play about the self-sufficiency of art. Each of the worried guests in turn appeals to Nikolai Nabokov, known as Nicky, who no longer composes but works for the State Department as a kind of fixer, helping his émigré friends in return for their agreeing to promote the values of their adopted country. Even Balanchine is willing to be used in this way; his part of the deal is not specified, but Nicky mysteriously manages to procure an expensive silk curtain he wants for the set of Orpheus.
For a play that questions the cost of art, the production is fully up to LCT’s luxurious standards. The large cast is strong, top to bottom, with standout work not only from Cerveris and Glover but from Blair Brown as Vera Stravinsky, Stephen Kunken as the conflicted Nicky, and Alvin Epstein, himself turning 88, as the failing Sudeikin. Jane Greenwood’s costumes do a novel’s worth of work in a few bolts of fabric. And the Orpheus excerpts, staged by New York City Ballet’s Rosemary Dunleavy, manage the trick of seeming both classically complete and yet also the result of artists making art on the spot. (The excellent dancers are Natalia Alonso as Tallchief and Michael Rosen as Magallanes.) Cromer has shaped the long scenes in the spirit of Balanchine as well, with alternating attention to long lines and gestural detail. You want to be at that party, outbursts and all.
But it would be wrong to say that all of this beautiful shaping is natural. In an author’s note, Nelson disclaims factual fidelity. (The people are real, but there was no such weekend; Stravinsky had already seen the ballet in rehearsal in New York, and Sudeikin died in 1946.) The work of the imagination creates imperatives of its own, which Nelson no less than Balanchine has been happy to obey. That there is a potentially sinister side to all this accommodation is a point that emerges late in the story, first with the cheerful pimping out of one character to another, and then with the arrival of an uninvited guest bearing vague ultimatums. Surely these Russians were better off in America than in what was left of Chekhov’s world. Even so, Nikolai and the Others makes the unmistakable point that artistic freedom is not always conducive to art and, in any case, is never free.
Nikolai and the Others is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through June 16.