05/07/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

First Nighter: Richard Nelson's "Nikolai and the Others" Dances In on Fleet Feet

Just as William Shakespeare did with his history plays, Friedrich Schiller did with Mary Stuart and others have done since, Richard Nelson has juggled the facts for Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse. The comparisons will stop here, which isn't at all to imply that the playwright's new work is anything less than a formidable piece of theater. Part of that formidability is due to David Cromer, who directs the demanding production with an authoritative hand.
Also, just as Christopher Hampton scrutinized the German expatriate community in Tales From Hollywood 30 years ago, Nelson sets forth a spring 1948 Westport, Connecticut reunion of celebrated Russian emigrés.
The hostess is George Balanchine's good friend Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris), and the guests include Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), his new bride and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso), Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), his wife Vera (Blair Brown), actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and maestro Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place) as well as several gabby, opinionated relatives and chums.
They've collected to celebrate the name day of the ailing Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), who's older than the others by several decades. The hitch is that, after having been a highly successful set designer and Vera Stravinsky's first husband, he's now nearly a forgotten man, and those in attendance are eager to cheer him up.
Nelson--whose sizable bibliography is inserted in the program--mentions only the name "Nikolai" in his title because he's chosen to make Nikolai "Nicky" Nabokov (Stephen Kunken) his pivotal character. Nicky is a composer who hasn't written any new music for some time--as the others bunched together in the title know--because he's become what appears to be an unofficial CIA go-between for the recently established agency and Russian artists making a name for themselves in their new country at a time when fearful belief in the Red Threat was intensifying.
During Nelson's two acts--constructed along Chekhovian lines for obvious reasons--Nicky's plight is that he's declined in his friends' estimation of him as an artist, while remaining someone who do can favors for them with the government. Several scenes are given over to just those kind of revealingly embarrassed entreaties.
Even worse, he's declined in his own estimation. One late scene on Marsha Ginsberg's capacious set involves Nicky's heated importunings with sometime state department official Charles "Chip" Bohlen (Gareth Saxe), whom Koussevitsky has brought to the gathering unannounced. He's something of an American counterpart to Nicky and a man who speaks fluent Russian. As drawn, he also speaks fluent obfuscating officialese.
By this point in the review, it has to have become clear that Nelson has taken on a huge topic--well, "topics" is more the word. For one thing, the Sudeikin event shows any number of accomplished people in a situation where they don't find that their accomplishments are guarantees of political safety. (By the way, when alone together they're meant to be speaking Russian. When the non-Russian speakers enter the proceedings, the English they speak is heavily accented. The dialect coach is Deborah Hecht.)
Perhaps Nelson's primary concern is the elusive, preoccupying art-life connection. It's certainly a (dis)connect that gnaws at Nikolai as well as the others., but it has its definite upside here. One of the gifts planned for Sudeikin is a preview of "Orpheus," the new ballet Balanchine is choreographing to Stravinsky's music. It's the reason Balanchine has invited Tallchief, his current wife, and Nicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen)--neither of whom speak Russian.
Therefore, a good segment of the late first act is devoted to the dancers performing sections of the work while Balanchine coaches them, Stravinsky adjusts his score to their needs and the others watch. That Rosemary Dunleavy's restaging of George Balanchine's 1948 ballet is exquisite comes as no surprise.
Although taking time for such a lengthy excerpt may be unusual in a drama, the "Orpheus" excerpt isn't the only time Nelson pauses the action for another discipline. Thinking to brighten Sudeikin's arrival, Balanchine instructs his rehearsal pianist and Sudeikin's nephew Kolya (Alan Schmuckler) to put on a recording of Sergei Taneyev's spell-binding choral piece, "Dawn." When the strains reach the party participants, they stop their conversations and raptly listen for a minute or two. The emotional effect of this display of attentiveness to music can't be overestimated.
Nelson is a playwright who gives the strong impression that he doesn't like repeating himself. On the other hand, one theme that does recur is an interest in people who find themselves out of their initial element. Some Americans Abroad, Two Shakespearean Actors, The General From America take up a subject that also serves as a metaphor for anyone's feeling uncertain wherever they realized they've landed.
The playwright also has a knack for dialog that can be naturalistic at times and epigrammatic at others. Stravinsky, depicted as waspish and self-involved, quips, "I can always remember my friends' failures." At another juncture, Balanchine remarks on their woodsy Connecticut surroundings that "Today there are more Russians in Westport than in Moscow." Whether Nelson found the amusing observation in the books he perused for background material isn't relayed.
During the badinage, someone brings up The Red Shoes, which was released that year, and Balanchine pooh-poohs the movie for its portrayal of the Serge Diaghilev substitute Lermontov as forbidding the romance between his composer and principal dancer. In the play, Balanchine says Diaghilev would have encouraged such a liaison. Again, if the sentiment was truly George Balanchine's, it's a disclosure fans of both the film and Balanchine will relish.
Incidentally, don't fail to notice that Nikolai and the Others calls for a cast of 18. Not mentioned so far are Betsy Aidem, Kathryn Erbe, Anthony Cochrane, Katie Kreisler, Jennifer Grace and Lauren Culpepper. Attempting to select a first among the equals in this classy ensemble is a total waste of time. They're all top-notch. But consider this theater query: How recently have the members of a straight-play cast outnumbered the producers?