What if composer Nikolai “Nicky” Nabokov, choreographer George Balanchine, composer Igor Stravinsky, designer Sergey Sudeikin, and a host of ex-wives, dancers, pianists, and the odd State Department official all gathered for a weekend on a Connecticut farm? You might expect romance, intrigue, or at the very least a stirring exploration of the seductions and demands of a life in art. You won’t find them in Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson’s elegant, intelligent, impeccably researched, and ultimately inert drama at Lincoln Center.
Nelson has trained his playwright’s eye on Orpheus, a collaboration between Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and Stravinsky (John Glover) that debuted in 1948 at New York City Center. He sets his play some months earlier, during an imagined weekend rehearsal that unites the crème fraîche of Russian émigré society. As Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso) and Nicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen) dance their pas de deux, alliances are tested and past histories dredged, but despite eloquent acting, fully realized characters never emerge. Nor does an engaging story.
Of course, not every play needs a story. Nelson has always drunk deep from the Anton Chekhov samovar, and Chekhov tells us that while people eat their dinner “all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.” Yet all we can see is the surface work of knife and napkin.
In his cycle of Apple family plays, which concludes at the Public Theater next season, Nelson expertly suggests that events of great moment occur even as people attempt picture puzzles or sip tea or bemoan the midterm elections. But little sense—so moving and melancholic—of life underneath or elsewhere enriches Nikolai and the Others. Instead it seems an assemblage of too many boldfaced names and too much background reading.
Occasionally a human moment threatens to intrude, like the distaste Nicky (Stephen Kunken) feels for his anti-Communist work or the complaints and infirmities of Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein). But they soon succumb to the play’s other distractions—the gossip, the dropped names, the endless procession of meals. (Thanks to set designer Marsha Ginsberg, these do look very tasty.)
Director David Cromer may be too patient and cerebral a man for such material. Maybe a slickster with a taste for sensation could have lent a veneer of urgency to the proceedings. But instead Cromer takes the script at its own pace, and that pace is very slow; not even in the extended dance sequences does Nikolai ignite. In the middle of the play, a character arranges a fireworks display. But just as in Nelson’s drama, every flash, every blast, every flare happens far from the stage.