Monday, May 27, 2013

Transplanted Russians: Nikolai and the Others

The cast of Nikolai and the Others, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in New York. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Richard Nelson’s new play, Nikolai and the Others, begins with deceptive casualness. The setting is a Westport, Connecticut farmhouse in 1948, whose owner, Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris), is hosting a gathering of fellow émigré Russians in honor of the name-day of the set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein, in a touching portrayal). The cast of characters includes George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), who are working on Orpheus for the New York City Ballet with Sudeikin’s nephew Kolya (Alan Schmuckler) as their rehearsal pianist; Stravinsky’s wife Vera (Blair Brown), who used to be married to Sudeikin; Natasha Nabokov (Kathryn Erbe) and her fiancé, Aleksi Karpov (Anthony Cochrane), a piano teacher; Evgenia (Katie Kreisler), who runs the NYCB school, and Natalia (Jennifer Grace), who works with her; the actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and his wife Lisa (Betsy Aidem), Vera’s best friend; and Natasha’s ex-husband Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a composer who now works for the American government as a kind of liaison to these Russian nationals.

The name-day celebration, of course, evokes the opening of Three Sisters, and Nelson has scattered other references to Chekhov through the play. Lucia’s niece Anna (Lauren Culpepper, who is studying to be a dancer, plays a game with Balanchine at one point, presenting herself as if she were Nina in The Sea Gull – a novice among these celebrities - and then pretending she’s never read it. (Nina is a vivid but not very talented actress who is given encouragement by the celebrities; by contrast Balanchine determines that Anna will never make a dancer, though he leaves it up to Lucia to break the news to her niece.) Stravinsky, joking to Balanchine, compares Aleksi to the hapless Yepihodov of The Cherry Orchard, and Nicky marvels that on a walk around the farm he thought he heard a Jewish band like the ones he recalls from his childhood, just as Ranevskaya in the same play is stirred by the sounds of a Jewish band across the water. The director, David Cromer, emulates a Chekhovian mood as these Russians talk and complain, wax nostalgic and insult each other (in varying degrees of good-heartedness and legitimate resentment), and the style is Stanislavkskian psychological realism. And by the end of the first act you realize that Nelson has pulled off the Chekhovian trick of infusing real substance into what seems like the engaging – and completely convincing – chatter of fascinating personalities thrown together for a social occasion.

John Glover, John Procaccino & Stephen Kunken (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
The subject is the community of Russian artists in post-World War II America. All three of the Chekhov plays Nelson quotes are about cultivated people who find themselves adrift in the provinces, and Nikolai and the Others takes the point of view of these Russians, unmoored in a country they don’t understand and which they’re quite sure doesn’t understand them. Their relationship to their adopted land is complicated: refugees from “the old Russia,” the pre-Soviet Russia, they’ve found sanctuary here but they still think of Russia with longing as their home. They’re like the defector Robin Williams plays in Paul Mazursky’s marvelous 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson, who tries to embrace America but misses even the misery he felt when he lived in Moscow because it was part of him and he feels he left himself behind there. Sudeikin is in a pitiable state – his health is failing him and he lives in a tiny, bedbug-infested Manhattan apartment, his status as a celebrated designer in Europe (he collaborated with Diaghilev) unacknowledged – but all of them feel, to a greater or lesser extent, that they’ve landed among the barbarians. And because Nikolai acts as a middleman between them and the U.S. government, a kind of fixer who helps them with their immigration problems (among other things), their relationship to him is even more complicated. “What would we do without Nicky?” they keep repeating to him, but they also feel that on some level he’s betraying them by working for the Americans (though Kolya is the only one who verbalizes this idea), and they no longer think of him as an artist. He stopped writing music years ago, though he keeps up the pretense that he’s about to start on a new piece; when one of his friends finally asks him what he’s working on, he looks panicked.

There’s good reason for the Russians to feel uneasy, in these days of loyalty oaths and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. INS seems to be playing games with them, threatening not to let Vera back in the country after a trip to Paris because the proof of her divorce from Sudeikin disappeared with the dissolution of “the old Russia,” holding some story about a pregnant girl he helped in Russia over Balanchine’s head just in case they need to manipulate him in the future. They hold all the cards, and the Russians know it. The government has pressured Igor to withdraw his support for a concert of the German composer Hans Eisler’s music because Eisler is a Communist, and Aleksi, who once appeared, as a lark, in a pro-Soviet Hollywood movie called Song of Russia, made in the days when the Soviets and the Americans were allies, has been called to testify before HUAC and comes, terrified, to Nicky for advice. (Calming him, Nicky encourages him to show the committee how eager he is to answer all their questions, i.e., to name names. “They appreciate eager people,” he explains to Aleksi.) The difficulty of their position is highlighted when the conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place), the one Russian we meet who doesn’t appear to feel any discomfort in his adoptive nation, shows up with Chip Bohlen (Gareth Saxe) in tow. Bohlen worked at the American Embassy in Moscow for many years, and though he claims to be a former member of the State Department in fact he still works for them; Nicky isn’t exactly a spy but, to use the terminology of espionage, he’s Nicky’s handler. He speaks fluent Russian, but he’s crass and intrusive and proprietary – he refers to the curtain the State Department has financed  for Orpheus as “our curtain.” The Russians aren’t pleased that Serge has brought an American to infiltrate what was intended to be a purely Russian party. (The only other Americans in residence are Balanchine’s wife, Maria Tallchief, played by Natalia Alonso, and Nicholas Magallanes, played by Michael Rosen – the principal dancers in Orpheus. And they’re only there to rehearse and to perform parts of the ballet for the guests, whose attitude toward them is somewhat high-handed: they talk about them in Russian in their presence and treat them as if they came with the property, like servants. Maria beats a hasty retreat as soon as she can manage it, and at one point they pay Nicholas to sleep on the couch in Sudeikin’s room so the old man, who admires him as a beautiful specimen, can look at him when he wakes up. It’s meant as a name-day surprise.)

Michael Rosen, Natalia Alonso, & Michael Cerveris (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
The Russians speak without accents when they’re talking amongst themselves but with accents when they speak English. It’s an ingenious idea that conveys the contrast between the emotional fluency they have within their own community with the way they suddenly turn into immigrants, strangers with funny vocal rhythms, as soon as they have to communicate with Americans.  Chip Bohlen always speaks to them in Russian but here it’s their physical manner and their language that express the distance they (especially Vera) feel from him; his attempt to pretend he’s one of them begins to feel creepy, especially when he holds such obvious power over them. They’re not at home with him; he symbolizes America to them. In one unsettling scene, Nicky, revved up by this weekend listening to Russian music and watching Balanchine’s dancers perform Stravinsky’s new work, tells Chip that he wants to give up his government job and go back to writing, and Chip, cruelly, reveals that his fellow émigrés laugh about him behind his back. Nicky is devastated. After Chip has left the room and Sokoloff has wandered into it, Nicky asks him if he was among the laughers. Pained, Sokoloff explains that when someone like Bohlen is around the Russians tend to say things they think will please him. To illustrate his point he tells a story about criticism he received for his performance in a production of Crime and Punishment that just closed in New York (a failure) because his authentic Russian accent stuck out in a cast of Brits and Americans. Sokoloff was told he should have tried to imitate the accent John Gielgud affected as Raskolnikoff.

This complex, nuanced work is the most interesting new play I’ve seen this season, and Cromer has given it a superb production. The entire ensemble performs beautifully. Aside from Epstein and Kunken in the central role, I particularly admired John Glover as the boisterous, spiky Stravinsky and Blair Brown as emotional Vera, who appears chronically anxious. Alan Schmuckler manages the difficult role of Kolya, who observes everything and expresses more bitterness than any of the other characters, with delicacy. (If I were mounting a production of any of Chekhov’s plays, I’d sign up this actor in a heartbeat.) With the elegantly coiffed hair of an old-school matinee idol and an air of exquisitely self-conscious theatricality, Michael Cerveris is a marvel as Balanchine. Cerveris may be the most gifted musical-theatre actor we have at the moment but he isn’t a dancer, and yet when he shows Magallanes how Orpheus should search for Eurydice’s hands behind him because he’s wearing a mask so he can’t see her, his physicality seems utterly right. That we get to see sections of Orpheus (Rosemary Dunleavy has reproduced Balanchine’s original choreography) is a special treat. His friends kid George about the commercial success he’s enjoyed with his Broadway musicals, like Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, and Orpheus’s first scene, when he’s alone with his lyre, is as jazzy as anything in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Marsha Ginsberg designed the sets, which are very elaborate for the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the small house at Lincoln Center – we keep seeing more and more of Lucia’s expansive farmhouse, including the barn where Igor and George are working through their ballet. Like The Nance and The Assembled Parties, this design makes creative use of the revolve. (It’s hard to imagine staging any of these plays without one.) The costumes by Jane Greenwood include some lovely flower-print blouses and skirts for the Russian ladies, and Ken Billington’s lighting, excellent throughout, is at its most memorable in the second-act scene where Lucia is working late at a table when Nikolai comes in to play the piano, and the two disparate activities create pools of light in the shadowy, after-hours study.

There’s an amazing moment late in the play when the Russians recite the ages they were when they left their homeland – nineteen, fifteen, thirteen, ten. “We were children leaving home,” one of them murmurs, just as, shocked, we make the same discovery. They had to grow up in Paris or in America, looking back at their memories of home like kids sent to boarding school who find they’re stranded there are the end of the year because no one has come for them. It’s easy to see why Nelson, who once wrote a play called Goodnight Children Everywhere about the children of the Kindertransport, would have been drawn to this material. It’s a theme that has inspired some of his finest work.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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