Nikolai and the Others
Lincoln Center Theater
At the best party I've been to all year, I wasn't allowed to talk; also, everyone spoke Russian, and I don't. Well, ok, neither technically do the actors in Richard Nelson's play (through June 16), set at a weekend-long gathering at a Chekhovian countryhouse in Connecticut with many notable Soviet émigrés, most notably Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) and George Balanchine (a nimble Michael Cerveris)—they're working on their Orpheus ballet; it's 1948—plus many other actors, artists, musicians, conductors, composers, and their friends and family: husbands, wives, ex-husbands, ex-wives. In a neat trick from director David Cromer, a master of ensembles, the actors speak American-accented English when the characters are speaking Russian, and thickly accented English when they're speaking the tongue of their adopted country.
Nikolai and the Others is about the difficulties of expatriation: the conflict between past and present, tradition and assimilation. (Stravinsky gets picked on for The Rite of Spring's appearance in Fantasia.) There are practical problems, smoothed over by Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), the composer-turned-bureaucrat to whom all the characters turn for help: with immigration, with missing papers, with the intensifying communist witch hunt. But aside from such indignities, the former royals get along well in the US; Nelson suggests the postwar era as a kind of second-coming of czarism, mostly in the way the wealthy Americans feel like they can buy the loyalty of these artists, subsidizing their work in exchange for their cultural ambassadorship—to show the rest of the world that the Soviets don't have a lock on the arts.
It's in these characters that art and politics collide. Nikolai unfolds at a casual and unhurried pace similar to a real weekend in Westport; as such, it lost a sizable chunk of its audience at intermission, mostly elderly people sneering at the lack of plot. Whatever: it's a delightful meeting of great artists and admirers of great art; it's as likely to stop a conversation so the characters can listen wistfully to a piece of music—or allow Balanchine's dancers to rehearse (in Balanchine's original choreography)—as it is to engage in dramatic conflict. Despite the political tension at play, Nikolai is at root about lovers of great beauty—"to see beauty or be a part of beauty is all we want," says one character—and so Nelson and Cromer allow the characters, and us, to revel in it. That is, they let us experience great art first-hand, to feel its beauty for ourselves, which drives home the play's own great art: the lovely, late-in-the-play discussions about what art is and what it means, about how frustrating it is not to create something but want to. If you care at all about art, you ought to adore this play.
Photo Paul Kolnik