By William Wolf
A PICTURE OF AUTUMN Send This Review to a Friend
When British playwright N. C. Hunter wrote his 1951 play “A Picture of Autumn” he surely must have been thinking of Chekhov. In a sprawling English country home, a family portrait is etched in the context of thoughts of abandoning the dwelling. There is a distinct reminder of Chekhov, except that here there is potential for an upbeat twist. The Mint Theater Company has lovingly revived Hunter’s work and brought out the richness in his drama.
For starters there is the realistically charming set by Charles Morgan, with a portion of a once-grand staircase that shows enough to suggest an upper floor within the confines of the limited Mint Theater stage. The set makes plausible the talk about the huge mansion hard to care for and the large grounds outside. Inhabiting the space is an excellent cast.
A crisis is afoot. Lady Margaret Denham, sympathetically played by Jill Tanner, is having trouble coping with running the place that is too demanding for a woman of her advancing years. Her husband, Sir Charles, well-played by Jonathan Hogan, has reached the stage where he mostly sits around and sleeps. In their employ is scene-stealer Barbara Eda-Young as Nurse, who gives a hilarious (tempered by pathos) performance shuffling around and wanting to make cocoa all day. She is a relic that is kept on through loyalty and habit more than for any seriously functional use.
The other inhabitant is Sir Charles’s brother, Harry, who is given a wonderfully appealing characterization by veteran actor George Morfogen. Harry’s wife died years ago and he spends his time recording the weather in a diary and is given to talking wisely, but living a rather abstract existence. He, too, is rooted to the estate.
The Denham’s older son, Robert (Paul Niebanck), has hatched a plan for his parents to sell the house to a developer who wants to turn the property into a school. He is not doing it out of greed to get money for himself, but as a genuine effort to do what he thinks best for his parents. Robert is a rather up-tight but caring individual representative of the kind of practical person in England of that period. In contrast his brother Frank (Christian Coulson) is a free-wheeling type who one might see as a forerunner of the decade-later swinging sixties. He makes a play for Robert’s wife Elizabeth (Katie Firth), whom he apparently had an affair with before she chose the more solid Robert. She is now loyal to her husband even though their relationship has become rather boring.
A touching bond develops between Elizabeth’s visiting daughter Felicity and Harry, who enjoys her youth, while she appreciates his tenderness and the grandfatherly interest he takes in her.
There is no question that the Denhams, and even Harry, would be better off practically without the huge deteriorating mansion. But they are so accustomed to their surroundings. Will the plan to sell be finalized? That’s the question that develops. And what would happen to Nurse?
Under the very sensitive direction by Gus Kaikkonen, the characters emerge fully realized and we get caught up in their little world that represents England before the changes that ensued. The playwright’s work dropped out of fashion in the face of the theatrical tilting toward the angry-young-man era. It is gratifying to see The Mint Theater following its mission and reviving this engrossing drama. At the Mint Theater,
311 West 43rd Street. Phone: 866-811-4111.
CORNELIUS Send This Review to a Friend
J.B. Priestley’s “Cornelius,” part of the Brits Off Broadway series, takes place in 1935 London but is still timely today. Not that it would matter if it were not, as the opportunity to look into plays from an earlier period is always welcome. Still, the situation of a company going bankrupt that deeply affects the lives of its characters has a contemporary resonance due to economic plight in our times.
David Woodhead has designed the perfect set occupying a small stage. It is an old-fashioned office with high ceilings, a tall, wide window and ordinary looking office furniture. The set goes a long way toward setting the atmosphere.
Cornelius (Alan Cox) is partnered with Robert Murrison in a firm (Briggs and Murrison) that imports and sells aluminum. Murrison is traveling, which leaves Cornelius to deal with creditors and the mountain of debt that has accumulated. A group of creditors descend on the company, but the meeting ends unsatisfactorily as nothing can be done until Murrison arrives, and Cornelius puts up a front to assure the creditors that all will work out.
When Murrison does arrive, he looks very distracted and it becomes increasingly clear that all is lost for the company. There will be no good news.
The play’s strength lies in the creation of its characters and the way in which an adverse situation will affect their lives. Biddle (Col Farrell), for example, has worked for the firm for many years keeping its books and records. Although losing his job is a setback, he is
basically a happy man with a family and thus can emotionally weather the storm. He is beyond setting off on a new career, but seems content to pursue life’s pleasures.
On the other hand, there is more of a blow to a long-time woman assistant, Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin), who has little outside life, and in fact has had a secret crush on Cornelius. A younger and prettier assistant, Judy Evison (Emily Barber), on whom Cornelius has a crush, already has a boyfriend and she takes the loss of work at the firm in stride.
The top victims are Murrison, whose life is shattered by all that has been happening, and Cornelius, who doesn’t readily see any future for himself. As the play’s title suggests, the drama revolves around him, and Alan Cox makes the most of the acting opportunity. He is colorful in his manner, extremely outgoing on the surface and very verbal—a showy characterization that masks his inner doubts, and also hides his shyness in making a moved toward his pretty, young assistant. Whenever personal relationships get closer in the drama results are painful.
It is mainly through Cornelius’s lines that the playwright delivers his viewpoint. The subject of suicide is raised in a discussion between Cornelius and Biddle, with Cornelius thinking suicide an be an act of courage and Biddle arguing vehemently against that idea. Here again the play strikes a contemporary note with the audience, given recent reports about the escalations of suicides in the country by soldiers and students.
“Cornelius” proves to be very engrossing, what with its realistic story and staging by director Sam Yates, as well as Priestley’s wit, sensitivity and perspective. At 59E59th Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, $70 ($49 for members). Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed June 12, 2013.
SOMEWHERE FUN Send This Review to a Friend
When a character in Jenny Schwartz’s "Somewhere Fun" talks about having met another character 100,000 years ago, it is obviously meant as hyperbole. But should we feel as if we were watching the play for 100,000 years? Excruciatingly banal and boring, the comedy/drama or whatever is supposed to be, is an exercise in tedium even though its voice is often hyper as a result of the author’s penchant for spewing words meant to sound literary and clever.
The assault begins early when Kate Mulgrew as Rosemary Rappaport shows up at a restaurant. Talking rapidly and loudly, Rosemary is painfully grating, and I longed for her to leave. The author also engages in utter stupidity. Rosemary announces that she is a real estate broker, and yet, in response to Mary Shultz as Cecelia, she wonders what the internet is, as well as having never heard of an iPhone. Really? A contemporary real estate broker not knowing today's tools of the trade? Find me another broker. Find me another character. Find me another play.
Kathleen Chalfant plays another hyper lady, Evelyn Armstrong, who is fatally ill. At least she has some of the play’s funnier lines (relatively speaking). Chalfant, excellent actress that she is, manages to be somewhat entertaining, but she also talks in a frenzy most of the time, so that she grates on the nerves as well.
Brooke Bloom plays a hyper cop, as well as Evelyn’s daughter Beatrice, who, we are told, has no face. A dog chewed it off when she was a child. Gregg Keller, who also is cast as a waiter, portrays Benjamin, Rosemary’s son. Maria Elena Ramirez comes off best as the taciturn Lolita, Evelyn’s calm caregiver.
Perhaps you will be able to make sense out of all of this. The playwright is known for being different and having an individual voice. It would seem that she is trying to talk about the need to get the most out of life while one is here, given the transitory nature of things.
Oh yes, I should mention that, in a nod to theater-of-the-absurd, Rosemary is reduced to a puddle on the sidewalk. That's one way to go, leaving a minimal trace. Can plays be reduced to puddles? At the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street. Phone: 212-353-0303. Reviewed June 5, 2013.
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1988 Send This Review to a Friend
The Broadway musical centerpiece of 1988 was the opening of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which is still running. Inevitably, this was the core for selections of that year in the latest of The Town Hall series created, written and hosted by Scott Siegel. I didn’t care much for “Phantom” when I saw it, but, as evidenced in this latest concert (June 3, 2013), the music endures, although there were no falling chandeliers at The Town Hall. There was terrific and fortuitous casting, with the performances by two who have starred along the way in the long-running hit, Howard McGillin and Jennifer Hope Wills. In general, I found the level of singing greater than the quality of the songs from shows of the chosen year.
The musicals that opened then included “Carrie,” “Legs Diamond.” “Romance, Romance, “Mail,” “The Gospel at Colonus” (Who remembers that one?) and “Chess,” the latter being an underrated production which had more dialogue inserted for Broadway than was the case when it played in London. Siegel made a point, which is true, that even flops often have songs worth hearing anew. The excellent singers assembled to honor the 1988 crop were impressive in their own right and enabled us to take a fresh look at the selected numbers. That also goes for the Broadway by the Year Chorus, by now a staple of these concerts and counted upon to provide extra exuberance.
McGillin and Wills were powerful from the start, singing the title song from “Phantom,”
teaming on the show’s “All I Ask of You,” and later, Wills singing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and McGillin holding the audience captive with his mesmerizing “The Music of the Night.” Both are amazing performers. Wills has a very special leading lady quality of her own to go with her sensational voice, as when she soloed without a mike, singing “Think of Me” from “Phantom.”
Other stars were Lisa Brescia, Kevin Earley, and Scott Coulter, the latter having handled the evening’s direction and musical staging, with musical direction by Ross Patterson, whose Little Big Band provided the demanding accompaniment. Brescia has the ability to switch moods appealingly, capturing the acting nuances required for her numbers excavated from “Carrie.” She was striking singing “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” and “When There’s No One,” both from “Carrie,” and also with “The Music Went Out of My Life,” a strong survivor from the flop “Legs Diamond.” She also injected omph into “Technique,” from the long-forgotten “Mail.”
Earley has a great voice, plus leading man DNA, shown by his performance of “Where I Want to Be” from “Chess” and his unplugged “Anthem” from the same show. He delivered special sensitivity with “Words He Doesn’t Say” from “Romance, Romance.”
Farah Alvin can belt powerfully and project personality plus, established with “I’m Not Alone” from “Carrie,” with “Someone Else’s Story” from “Chess” and with “How Did I End Up Here?” from “Romance, Romance,” as well as teaming with Scott Coulter on “I Know Him So Well” from “Chess.” The music from “Romance, Romance" got a further lift with “Romantic Notions,” performed by the foursome Alvin, Brescia, Coulter and Earley. Coulter is always reliable, as fans of the series know, with his elevated voice and interpretive sensitivity.
Curiously, one of the evening’s high points came in the form of gospel, with Kyle Scatliffe and Carlton Terrence Taylor, Jr., standing out and soaring in the Broadway By the Year Chorus rendition of “Lift Me Up (Like a Dove)” from “The Gospel at Colonus.”
What the performers shared in common was the ability to make one take a new look at songs from the shows of 1988. Who knows—I might even get to like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music from “Phantom,” thanks to McGillin and Wills. At The Town Hall, 143 West 43rd Street. Reviewed June 4, 2013.
THE GIACOMO VARIATIONS Send This Review to a Friend
Apart from the appearance of John Malkovich as the colorful seducer Casanova, the greatest pleasures in the chamber opera play “The Giacomo Variations” lie in the singing
and the clever incorporation of woks primarily by Wolf Amadeus Mozart throughout the production, presented at City Center (May 30-June 2) as part of the first Cherry Orchard Festival in New York City.
The four performers are divided into the acting and singing roles, the latter falling to Daniel Schmutzhard as Giacomo II and Sophie Klußmann as Elisa II. Schutzhard enhances the production with his strong male voice and Klußmann is a delight with her lovely soprano. These performances come through with vigor and sensitivity as highlights of the show, written by director Michael Sturminger with the music concept by Martin Haselböck, who also is musical director.
In his inimitable style Malkovich explores the take on Casanova as one who wonders what his life has been about and longs to find a meaningful true love after his record of seductions. Various characters are integrated in the flow of the play, with attractive Ingeborga Dapkunaite fulfilling the acting chores. Malkovich’s arch speaking tone comes through most sharply, but even he is under-miked for the cavernous City Center, more ideal for music than drama.
Although one watches Malkovich with fascination, there is a measure of remoteness in the staging. But when the singing soars and the large orchestra registers solidly, one can better appreciate the cleverness of basing the play on opera scenes as well as on the legendary Casanova’s exploits and dissatisfaction. The result is more of a musical experience than a theatrical one. Much has been culled from “The Marriage of Figaro, “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte” with exhilarating results.
The scenery is very clever (stage and costume design by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser), with three tent-like sections resembling wide women’s skirts leading up to corsets As might e expected, considerable sexuality runs through the play, including a funny bit involving choosing the right size condom.
Other events in the festival include the U. S. premiere of “Enemies, a Love Story” to be performed by the Gesher Theatre of Israel (June 6-9) at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, and Olga Kern of Russia in a piano recital (June 7) at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. She will be featuring Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov. Phone: 1-800-349-0021.
Reviewed May 31, 2013
THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Send This Review to a Friend
The Classic Stage Company has mounted an effective production of Bertolt Brecht’s difficult play. A versatile cast of seven playing multiple roles gives the impression of a much larger ensemble, and Brian Kulick has inventively staged the play, translated by James and Tania Stern, with original music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by W. H. Auden.
But despite the quality of the work, I have a quarrel with one aspect that I think is an insult to Brecht.
In a statement by Kulick, he says, “We have chosen to set our ‘Chalk Circle’ during the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps because it is still so very hard to separate Brecht’s dramatic hopes from the realities of history—not that Brecht was blind to what was happening in his lifetime. His ‘Chalk Circle’ is as much about ‘ancient Grusinia’ as it is about the precarious state of a socialist society. We have decided to use that tumultuous period between Gorbachev and Putin as a way to foreground some of these latent concerns that lie beneath the surface of Brecht’s parable. And so our play begins when the hammer and sickle gives way to the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle…”
To take Brecht’s parable and give it a specific political twist that he did not write is arrogant treatment of a playwright’s work. At a forum I once attended someone asked how a playwright can protect his work, and the playwright answered, “Don’t die.” Brecht’s play thrives on its universality precisely because it doesn’t narrow its focus. It leaves us to our imagination with respect to what it says about tyranny. Also, it is presumptuous to lock Brecht into an anti-Soviet political position of which there is no evidence that he would have approved.
The crazy thing about the gambit is that for all practical purposes it becomes irrelevant. Apart from seeing a statue of Lenin toppled and beheaded and Coca-Cola graffiti, there is little physical or verbal evidence of the point Kulick as trying to make. The gambit comes across as gratuitous as it is ill-conceived.
Fortunately, the play unfolds on its own terms without the director’s applied agenda. It is a story of a dictatorial regime brought down, a young woman who raises an abandoned child, am usurper judge in the upheaval that occurs and brings new abuses, even though there is also a smattering of justice. The fourth wall is shattered, Brecht style, when the players address the audience, and in this case, even invite members of the audience to come on stage to participate in a wedding, given the lack of enough cast members. The story unfolds as a play within a play, and the actors win us over whether as heroes or villains.
Christopher Lloyd is especially memorable, first as the singer-narrator, and then when he assumes the judicial robes as Azdak and proceeds in his authoritarian manner. He eventually makes a Solomon-like decision when the selfish, egotistical Mary Testa as the Governors’s wife claims the child she had thoughtlessly abandoned. Lloyd has a great face, as if he had been sculpted, and an impressive presence. Elizabeth A. Davis is excellent, earning our sympathy as Grusha, who discovered and raised the child. She doesn’t want to exert force in the pulling contest that Azdak has set-up to determine guardianship. Creative puppetry is used to represent the child.
The other accomplished cast members adding to the assortment of characterizations include Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff and Alex Hurt. The music is well-integrated and adds considerably to the colorfulness of the staging. This is an enjoyable, accomplished production in no need of the political twist with which the director saddles Brecht. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, $60-$65. Phone: 212-352-3101. Reviewed May 31, 2013.
THE MASTER BUILDER (BAM) Send This Review to a Friend
Of the productions of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” I have seen, this new staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is the earthiest. Directed by Andrei Belgrader from a translation by David Edgar, the production tightens Ibsen and lacks some of the mystique of other interpretations. But the result also makes the characters more believable than they sometimes are. Leading the charge is John Turturro as Halvard Solness, the builder in question, whose character is crystal clear in accordance with the present mounting.
Turturro’s Solness is arrogant, angry, guilt-ridden, philandering, manipulative to the point of cruelty, ambitious and fearful of competition. These qualities are clearly laid out via dialogue and demeanor. Missing is any sense of idealistic underpinnings to his hunger to be the best. Here the triumph Solness seeks in constructing unique buildings with towers stems more from determination to assert his prowess.
This has the advantage of crispness, abetted by Turturro’s strong up-front acting. The rest of the acting is on the same clear wavelength. Attractive Wrenn Schmidt as the sexy Hilde Wangel, who proves to be Solness’s undoing, shows no use for subtlety. Solness may be the master builder; she is the master seducer. Having had an encounter with him 10 years before, which he barely remembers, she has nurtured fantasies of taking him up on what she remembers as his magical promise to build a castle together. She comes into his household with a mission.
Schmidt turns on the sex appeal as Hilde, flirting shamelessly and even spreading her legs at times to look provocative. She is sexuality personified. He, of course, succumbs.
What’s behind her relentless come-on is her selfish desire to exert power no matter the cost. Her target is too smitten to see how much he is being manipulated when she goads him into climbing to the top of a tower, even though he is afraid of heights.
Meanwhile, Solness has been putting on the charm to his helper, Kelly Hutchinson as Kaja, who is the girlfriend of his builder assistant, Ragner, portrayed by Max Gordon Moore, who is desperate for Solness to help him advance as his own boss. Solness masks his fear of competition by belittling Ragner’s work. Ragner’s dying father Knut (Julian Gamble), pleads with Solness to help his son, but the builder cruelly refuses, showing no mercy to a man who wants assurance of his son’s advancement. By the time Solness relents under pressure from Hilde, it is too late.
Other characters include Katherine Borowitz as Aline, Solness’s wife, from whom he is increasingly estranged. (Turturro and Borowitz are real-life husband and wife.) Both have been emotionally crippled by the loss of their two children. Solness has guilt feelings and believes he has been punished by God. This leads to rage and his vow never to build churches again. Aline is aware of her husband’s flirtations. The other character is Ken Chesseman as Dr. Herda, who while administering to Solness’s wife, is suspected by Solness of really hanging around to evaluate his emotional state.
Two musicians, Ryan Rumery on piano, synthesizer and percussion, and Christian Frederickson on viola and guitars, provide background accompaniment. Santo Loquasto has created a structure that resembles a large erector set as the playing area. Given all the various elements in place, I found this staging enjoyable to watch even though the result was more open-faced drama than a presentation that communicates great tragedy. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street. Phone: 718-636-4100. Reviewed May 24, 2013.
THE WEIR Send This Review to a Friend
The pub that Charlie Corcoran designed for Conor McPherson’s play “The Weir” in this Irish Repertory Theatre revival during its 25th anniversary season looks so realistic that one might feel like going up on stage an ordering a pint. It is meant to be located in a remote country part of Ireland, and as a place where the locals gather to chat about their lives and sometimes spin stories with a hint of the supernatural.
The first to arrive at the pub is Dan Butler as Jack, a habitué, who tries to help himself to a beer. Soon Billy Carter as Brenden, the barman, arrives to get matters in order. John Keating as Jim is next on the scene. Talk among the bachelors includes gossip about Finbar (Sean Gormley), who is married and due to bring a young women around. She has recently moved into the area and he is merely helping her, but gossip is gossip.
When Tessa Klein as Valerie, the lady in question, arrives with Finbar, she is a welcome
addition, bringing a fresh glow to the room. The men become occupied telling stories that reflect local lore, but Valerie soon settles into telling of her own horrific experience, and that makes everything else pale by comparison. She holds the men—and the audience—spellbound and evokes tremendous sympathy for what occurred and her gallant effort to bear up under the tragedy.
This air of truthfulness leads to Jack confiding about the terrible disappointment in his life, how he let slip his one opportunity for life with a woman he adored, and whom he still thinks about every day. Butler is so poignant in Jack’s revelation that one hurts deeply for him.Through his story the author shows us the sadness and loneliness that can exist in the environment depicted. It is very observant writing, and the fine cast, as astutely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, provides us with compelling portraits of characters who come to life before our eyes. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 131 West 22nd Street, $55-$65. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed May 24, 2013.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL Send This Review to a Friend
One can’t say that the book of “Motown the Musical” is incidental, but the fun in this wildly exuberant staging lies in the singing, the choreography and the appealing, energetic performances by the stars and the back-up gang. Those attuned to the old Motown hits will enjoy them, while others for whom those hits were not exactly their era of favorites, should still enjoy their enthusiastic, expert delivery.
The book, anchored to a 25th Motown anniversary celebration and fleshed out with flashbacks, was written by Motown honcho Berry Gordy, based on his book “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, The Memories of Motown.” Not surprisingly, likably acted by Brandon Victor Dixon, Berry (he also is a producer of the show) comes across as a great guy and achiever, whose only fault is being overbearing and single-minded in his ever-ambitious quest for success, thwarted when some whose careers he boosted move on elsewhere to the tune of more money. Milestones are noted, as with the ultimate breakup with Diana Ross. There is also perfunctory detail paid to events of the times, illustrated by projections, such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and battles in the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
But these are all way stations among the musical pleasures. On the night I saw the show the roles of young Berry Gordy, young Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson were played by young Raymond Luke, Jr. and he is a show-stealer if ever there was one. That kid can sing, dance and stop a show. (He alternates with Darius Kaleb.)
In other casting, Charl Brown plays the loyal Smokey Robinson, Bryan Terrell Clark is Marvin Gaye, and Valisia LeKae effectively does the honors as Diana Ross. David Korins has provided nifty shifting set designs, Natasha Katz dazzles with lighting and Esosa has gone to town with flashy costuming. A major contribution is the hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. An avalanche of choreography has been provided by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams, with director Charles Randolph-Wright accomplishing the major task of keeping the long show on the move despite typical book lulls.
“The Legendary Motown Catalog” of music and lyrics yields more songs than one can keep count of (consult Playbill for the total). Motown music is made available courtesy of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. “My Girl” and “My Guy” are, of course, there. So are “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’;” “I Got the Feeling;” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine;” “I Want You Back;” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone;” “To Be Loved;” “Where Did Our Love Go?”—the list goes on. Three new songs were written for the production by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith—“Can I Close the Door?’ “Hey Joe (Black Like Me),” and “It’s What’s in the Grooves That Counts.”
That this show is akin to so-called jukebox musicals shouldn’t obscure the fact that the cast and aggregate backstage talent bringing “Motown the Musical” to life are providing a huge bundle of entertainment rooted in pop music history. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929.
NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS Send This Review to a Friend
Richard Nelson has written an imaginative play of exceptional interest. He puts together real people, noted Russian émigrés, and gives us portraits of their personalities and activities. Although in writing “Nikolai and the Others” he has taken liberty with dates and location, Nelson has used his creative ability to zero in on their importance and entanglements. Under David Cromer’s direction, a large, effective cast brings these notables to life in this intriguing Lincoln Center Theater Production.
The setting is a farmhouse near Westport, Conn., the time a weekend in the spring of 1948. Some audience patience is required at the outset as we are gradually introduced to the various characters under inspection. The Playbill program is a valuable guide to who’s who, as is an author’s statement insert. Marsha Ginsberg has designed a shell of a farmhouse, which opens up to show its interior, although moving the set-up can be a bit cumbersome. The drama builds more by relationship involvements than by intense plotting.
The Nikolai of the title is “Nicky” Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a composer and cousin of the writer Vladimir Nabokov. Nikolai’s career has gone into decline as he has become a fixer of problems with the C.I.A., and close to Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who was formerly a State Department official, is a fluent Russian speaker and key in trying to spread American culture and freedom values in the Cold War.
A political background hovers in the context of that Cold War period, later revealed to be a time when the C.I. A. was secretly funding ostensibly free-standing cultural programs. (As a journalist, I covered one such gathering in Paris with a panel consisting of important American writers, only later to be unmasked as a C.I.A.-funded operation.)
Among the others gathered for the weekend are Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), composer; his wife Vera (Blair Brown); stage and film actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino), friend of the Stravinskys; Lisa Sokoloff (Betsy Aidem), Vladimir’s wife and Vera Stravinsky’s best friend; George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), already a well-known choreographer; Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso), Balanchine’s wife and dancer; Kolya (Alan Schmuckler), Balanchine’s rehearsal pianist, and Serge Koussevitsky (Michael Rosen), conductor.
Among the various others is Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), artist and renowned set designer who was formerly married to Vera Stravinsky. He is seriously ill and preparations are under way to honor him during the weekend.
What emerges from the collection of émigrés under author Nelson’s inspection is a portrait of transplanted artists trying to make it in America while still retaining affection for, and roots in, their homeland despite the political upheavals against which they must operate. On one side is the Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union, and in America there is the increasing pressure of the Red-scare and congressional investigations.
The commitment to artistry is depicted when space is cleared in the farmhouse for a rehearsal and demonstration of the ballet “Orpheus,” a collaborative effort between Balanchine and Stravinsky. As those gathered watch with interest, there is an exquisite dance excerpt presented with Tallchief (Alonso) and dancer Nicholas Magallenes (Michael Rosen), as directed and guided by Balanchine. It is an important centerpiece in the play.
The story swirls around the artistic decline of Nikolai, the scorn heaped upon him and his resulting self-doubts, as he is embroiled in the political problems, and there is a nasty
confrontation between him and Bohlen, depicted as arrogant and manipulative.
The play becomes increasingly impressive as it goes along, at least for those who appreciate such a work in contrast with a more simplistic piece of theater. Credit Nelson with having come up with a drama that is original and absorbing, all the more so as a result of its elaborate casting and skillful staging. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 21, 2013.