Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson's ambitious new offering at Lincoln Center, is basically a history play that aspires to shed philosophical light on the relationship between Art and politics and the plight of the Artist in Exile. As history, it is fascinating and engaging; as philosophy, it's not clear exactly what he wants to say.
The play takes place over a weekend in the spring of 1948 at a Westport, Conn., farmhouse where a group of Russian émigrés have gathered to honor Sergey Sudeikin, a once-famous stage designer, now aged and ailing, on his name day. The guest list includes George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, the actor Vladimir Sokoloff, the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and Nikolai (Nicky) Nabokov, a sometime composer who has been co-opted by the C.I.A. and is now the main conduit between the Russian exiles and the U.S. government.
There are enough characters in Nikolai to fill a Russian novel, or at least a Chekhov play, and under David Cromer's excellent direction the fine cast of 18 all move nimbly around Marsha Ginsberg's smart sets - the patio and living room of the farmhouse and a barn used as a rehearsal space - without running into each other. With Jane Greenwood's period costumes and the ladies' permed hair styles, the journey back to postwar America is complete.
At the outset, preparations are being made for a huge outdoor meal. Tables are shoved together and a half dozen women rush in and out of the house bearing food, plates and cutlery. A piano is playing somewhere inside, and there is a card game going on. Everyone knows one another (a few have been married to each other) and Cromer has a knack for turning their mundane banter into suspenseful drama.
Just staging a meal with 14 at table begs a comparison to Chekhov's plays or Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia. But that comparison would be unfortunate. Nelson is neither Chekhov nor Stoppard, and while he floats many ideas about art and exiles in Nikolai, they are never discussed in any depth or come into open conflict.
Nelson is, however, an adroit writer who defines each of his characters, both the famous and the not-so-famous, through snatches of conversation, much of which concerns the incongruities of daily life as members of the growing community of Russian émigrés who have landed in America in the wake of Stalin's repression, much like the German artists who fled Hitler's Germany a decade or two earlier. One is happy to get to know them and learn about their lives.
It quickly becomes clear that Balanchine and Stravinsky are working on a joint project, and one of the real joys in Nelson's play is a brief rehearsal of what will become the Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet Orpheus with Natalia Alonso, playing Maria Tallchief, dancing a splendid solo and a pas de deux with Michael Rosen, deftly staged by Rosemary Dunleavy.
It also becomes evident what role Nicky Nabokov plays in this clique. Everyone has a problem, whether it's a bit of red tape to untangle or the F.B.I. asking awkward questions, and Nikolai is the one who can fix it for them through his contacts. And it is with the late entry of Nicky's C.I.A. master, Chip Bohlen, on the weekend gathering that the stakes are suddenly raised and the gloves come off.
The C.I.A. has been helping finance some of the Russians' artistic endeavors, but Bohlen expects something in return. The Cold War has just begun, America's suspicions of hidden enemies have switched from Nazis to Communists, and the Russian exiles must decide whether they can dance to the tune called by their new masters.
There are big questions that hover over the stage in Nelson's play, but are never fully explored: Who owns art? The artist who made it or the person who paid for it? What allegiance does an artist owe his benefactor? Even lesser questions are left hanging: Is an artist by definition an exile? Can an exile ever be at home in his new country? Where is home?
Cromer has assembled an excellent cast without a weak link in it. Michael Cerveris is coolly aloof as Balanchine, totally self-assured, straight-backed with his head held high as though he were looking down on the world from Olympus. Stephen Kunken's Nikolai is a study of a man who wants to be somebody else, aware he is being used by his fellow exiles, longing to be writing music, but unsure whether he has the talent.
John Glover is convincing as the fiery Stravinsky, though looking nothing at all like the composer, and the veteran Alvin Epstein is a portrait of frailty as Sudeikin. As Sokoloff, John Procaccino delivers a funny turn describing how he uses the same accent for every bad guy he plays in the movies whether Mexican, Chinese or Russian. Each of the women brings a special touch to their roles, especially Haviland Morris as Lucia Davidova, Balanchine's friend and the hostess for the weekend.