"Everyone needs help."
Richard Nelson's new play is a who's who of Russian émigré artists in America in the 1940's, but lost in the jumble of too many characters, too much eating, and too much backbiting, is the delicate tale of an artist who has given up his art and made a career of helping out his Russian friends with the American government at time when proving your loyalty to America was de riguer.
Set in the woods of Westport, CT in 1948, Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) and George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) are working on their new collaboration, a ballet of Orpheus and Eurydice. Joining them are old Russian friends, spouses, and confidants. Included among these is Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a composer who has gone to work for Voice of America, his ex-wife Natasha (Kathyrn Erbe), her new fiancé Aleksi (Anthony Cochrane), actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and his wife Lisa (Betsy Aidem), Stravinsky's wife Vera (Blair Brown) and Vera's ex-husband Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein). Many have gathered to see the ailing Sudeikin, one of the first to come from Russia to America and a set designer they had all admired. An unexpected guest, Chip Bohlen (Gareth Saxe), a State department official and former member of the Moscow Bureau brings tension to the proceedings.
The play is not sure where to keep its focus. There is a great deal about Stravinsky and Balanchine's collaboration including staged ballet scenes from Orpheus. There is Vera coping with seeing her ailing and penurious ex-husband as her current husband enjoys success. There are the hangers-on, all female, who fawn and care for Balanchine--protecting him, insulating him, taking care of his dirty work for him. And at the center of it all is Nikolai--Nicky to his friends. Nicky has somehow become the pawn of the American government. Smoothing over immigration issues, counseling them as to how to best positions themselves with the government, and getting them the things they need. Oh great artists! Helpless and needy and not to be caught up in the details.
I found the play tiresome in the endless introductions and inter-relationships between the figures. As much as the overlapping dialogue and massive cast is supposed to set
up a certain spirit to the piece, I found the dialogue was not sharp
enough to give those scenes shape. Like February House, this show suffered under the weight of its own efforts to connect many characters to historical material. Too many personalities fail to make this soufflé rise. But there was something to Kunken (who I loved in The Columnist) and his dynamic with his ex-wife that was worth exploring. Kunken and Erbe brought heat to the cold play. Little of it came out in the first act, but the second act dialed up the reasons for being there. The Russians putting on their best accommodating faces for the government official. The roles they are all playing in America and the their struggles to be able to feel at home. And an artist who has given up and cannot get himself back on track. That kernel was fascinating, and watching Nicky struggle with his sidelined talent in the face of greatness all around him was powerful. But it came late in the play and continued to get sidelined by other "plots."
Something about this play felt like Nelson struck gold with the material--so much potential and a rich time period full of themes of trust, betrayal, identity and home--but his approach, his point of entry into the story felt wrong. Part of me wished we never saw the great artists in this play. They took up too much room with their names alone and did not really add to the story that was interesting to me. Orpheus in many ways is really a MacGuffin. Yes, it is an inspirational jumping off point for Nicky and a fun thing to stage (in Cromer's hands there is lovely mirroring with shadows) but I think I would have enjoyed a play that took place behind the scenes. Just Nicky, Natasha, Vladimir and some of the hangers-on. Kunken, Erbe, Procaccino and Aidem all offered unique and specific characters and I wanted more of them. So much time was spent on Sudeikin and Vera, Balanchine and his peccadilloes, Stravinsky and his needs--they proved to be the least interesting of the ensemble. I wanted to know more about the real people who lived in the shadows of these great men and fought for a foothold in the unsteady world they existed in.