NEW YORK — What a thrill it must have been to be present during artistic collaborations between performing arts legends like George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky.
Richard Nelson’s intimate, bittersweet new drama, “Nikolai and the Others,” about the immortality of art, showcases a purely imaginary country weekend in the lives of a group of famous Russian emigres in America that depicts those two great talents working together, surrounded by supportive friends.
The richly detailed drama, which opened Monday night at Lincoln Center, is set in the spring of 1948, when the Cold War between former World War II allies America and the Soviet Union is under way. While the U.S. government is generously funding cultural activities of the group’s members, the menacing shadow of CIA agents with confusing agendas haunts everyone’s activities, public and private.
Nelson skillfully encapsulates the complexities of these emigres’ lives as they struggle with artistic ambitions, memories of past loves, yearning for their long-lost homeland, and current-day political issues that require strategic approaches to even minor activities.
In all, 18 actors are deployed with assurance by director David Cromer on the compact thrust stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which is beautifully designed with sophisticated period touches by Marsha Ginsberg. Cromer successfully creates a Chekhovian atmosphere with Nelson’s script, with some characters reminiscing out loud while others experience quiet, sometimes rueful epiphanies.
The Russians are gathering at the comfortable, bohemian farmhouse of Lucia Davidova, (Haviland Morris, quietly resonant), in rural Westport, Connecticut. They plan to celebrate the name day of a beloved but extremely ill old friend, renowned set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein, masterfully hamming it up.)
The central figure in the play is composer Nikolai (“Nicky”) Nabokov, who now works with the State Department doing favors for his Russian friends regarding documents, permissions, and the like. Stephen Kunken emanates a slightly melancholy helpfulness as Nicky, whose time-consuming diplomatic role has distanced him from his art. As he watches the creative process of his friends Stravinsky and Balanchine, he becomes inspired to begin composing again.
The group is privileged to enjoy a private rehearsal of the Stravinsky-Balanchine’s gestating avant-garde ballet “Orpheus,” which would soon premiere and be hailed as a masterpiece. John Glover is an energetic, thoughtful Stravinsky. Feisty yet practical, Igor curries favor with the mistrusted CIA operative who turns up unexpectedly, while reminding Nicky it’s just what they have to do.
Michael Cerveris is smooth and calmly imperious as Balanchine, whose impracticality and devotion to his artistic vision are subtly presented by Nelson through the “Orpheus” rehearsal process, as well as via anecdotes, called “George stories,” shared by his amused and admiring friends.
The entire cast is excellent. Blair Brown radiates magnetism and warm authority as Stravinsky’s wife Vera, a former actress who is also Sudeikin’s ex-wife and a leader within the group. Kathryn Erbe gives a spirited portrayal of Natasha Nabokov, Nikolai’s cheerful, pragmatic ex-wife.
Gareth Saxe is appropriately boorish as Chip Bohlen, the American CIA agent who intrudes upon the Russians’ gathering with clumsy bonhomie, his not-so-subtle threats putting a face to the general feeling of U.S. government dominance.
Illustrating the alienation immigrants feel in their adopted country is that the audience hears the cast speaking flawless English whenever the characters are actually meant to be speaking Russian among themselves. The actors then switch into heavily Russian-accented English when speaking to the few Americans in their midst.
Rosemary Dunleavy staged the ballet selections from “Orpheus,” which are gracefully performed by Natalia Alonso as Maria Tallchief, Native American ballerina and wife to Balanchine, and a puppyish Michael Rosen as her young American co-star.
Nelson has created a beautifully moving look at a dark time in America, when government suspicion of even its most lustrous citizens could escalate into threats against their personal freedom and livelihoods.
“We do what we have to do,” is a cautionary refrain among these emigres, weary of government manipulation yet determined to carry on with their artistic work. Sudeikin gives a lyrical summation in the text of a speech to his friends, “Art: our record that we have lived, the breath that gives us life.”