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Paulanne Simmons

Another Show about Those Russians!

NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS -- Kathryn Erbe and Stephen Kunken in "Nikolai and the Others" at Lincoln Center. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Nikolai and the Others
Directed by David Cromer
Mitzi E. Newhouse 150 West 65 Street
Opened May 6, 2013
Tuesday, Thursday - Friday at 8PM, Wednesday & Saturday, 2PM & 8PM
Sunday, 3PM
Tickets: $75-$85 (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com
Closes June 16, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 22, 2013

“Nikolai and the Others,” a new play by Richard Nelson, has over a dozen characters and clocks in at two and a half hours (with one intermission). It often seems like a soap opera. One difference between this play and what daytime television offers is that these characters happen to be based on Russian émigrés well-known in the arts: Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine, and a host of lesser knowns. The other is that it is directed by David Cromer (“Tribes,” “Our Town”).

Much as in a Chekov play, all these individuals are collected in a bucolic setting, in this case a farmhouse outside Westport, Connecticut owned by Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris), a friend of Balanchine (Michael Cerveris). Ostensibly the guests are there to celebrate the name day of the aged and impoverished painter and set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein) But unlike Chekov’s characters, they are actually doing something productive. These Russians are at the farmhouse to watch and assist Balanchine and Stravinsky create the ballet “Orpheus.”

However, the audience only occasionally sees Stravinsky and Balanchine at work, most notably when a section of the ballet is performed by tNicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen) and Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso), Balanchine’s newest (and very young) bride. Most of the time, the guests at the farmhouse eat, drink, remember old times in Russia and worry about their future.

The Nikolai of the title is Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a former composer who now works for Voice of America, which allows him to help many of his Russian friends with their various problems relating to their status in the U.S. He is also a patron of the arts, supplying Balanchine with a curtain (something which is mentioned so many times it eventually becomes a joke). He accommodates everyone until the worm of doubt begins to erode his confidence.

Thanks in part to the writing, but also to Cromer’s fine direction and the excellent quality of the acting, every one of the characters in “Nikolai and the Others” has a significant purpose in the action of the play. No one never becomes overly maudlin or ridiculous, an ever-present danger in a play about Russians. Standouts include Cerveris as the choreographer more committed to his art than his women, Glover as the acerbic Stravinsky, Blair Brown as the very likable Vera Stravinsky and Kunken as the amiable but conflicted Nikolai.

There are so many plots and sub-plots in “Nikolai and the Others” that for a while it’s difficult to understand what Nelson’s main point is. There have been several marriages and divorces in the group. Vera Stravinsky was once married to Sudeikin. Balanchine’s confidant, Natasha (Kathryn Erbe) was formerly Nikolai’s wife, but is now engaged to Aleksi Karpov (Anthony Cochrane), a piano teacher. If the play is a comment on the endurance of love, surely that is beautifully highlighted by Vera’s continued affection and concern for Sergey.

But failed and emerging marriage is not all that is discussed and is only partially responsible for the anxiety that surrounds this group. If the play is about the uncertain status of the immigrant (something that is still relevant today), the witty and plaintiff conversations of these famous but isolated souls well illustrate the dilemma.

But by the end of the play, it becomes obvious that what Nelson is most concerned with is the state of the artist. Even more than their Russian heritage and bonds of friendship, their love of art is what binds all these people together. It is art which gives men and women a soul and separates them from all other creatures.


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