It's been a while since I've written. Truthfully, it's been a while since I've written anything--a while for me, anyway. There was this annual exam, you see, that turned into a rather sudden hysterectomy, which completely cured the problem and flattened me for three weeks, made off with all my energy and the better part of my brain for even longer. In fact, they're not back yet, after five weeks and change.
"Complete recovery in 3 weeks," the man said. "Ha!" I say. Also, "Thank you for the robots. This could have been so much worse."
Anyway, Ellen and I took eegatland (in town for BEA and early promotion on Rose Under Fire, which I have an ARC of, nyah, nyah, nyah) to see Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center last night. It was wonderful and thoughtful and I had a lot to say about it (last night, anyway), so I thought I'd attempt a review. I have to get back on the horse sometime, don't I? Even if I can't quite say what I mean and flounder a bit?
Right. Here goes.
Richard Nelson has written a lot of plays, none of which I've seen but his musical of James Joyce's The Dead, which I recall as being rather wonderful, in a sad, elegiac, atmospheric, deeply human way. No catchy tunes, not a lot of plot, but lots of feelings, feelingly expressed. Which pretty well describes Nikolai and the Others--except for not being a musical. Both are about longing and nostalgia and the fear of death. Both build their effects slowly, word by word, allowing the characters all the space they need to come alive for us--and frequently, for each other. But there the similarities cease. The Dead is peopled largely by characters who are afraid to show what they feel or say what they think. Nikolai is peopled by characters who talk about their feelings and opinions All The Time. Sometimes they actually even tell the truth.
It's 1948. Nikolai Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin) has been invited to a weekend in the Berkshire home of Lucia Davidova, who knows just about everybody who is anybody among the Russian artists living in America. She's George Balanchine's BFF, and good friend to Igor Stravinsky and at least two of his wives, also their past and current husbands and fiances and nieces, not to mention assistants, adjutants, and a conductor (Serge Koussevitsky). She invites them all to a house party to honor the aged and ailing designer Sergey Sudeikin on the occasion of his name day. The house party is Nelson's contrivance, and a very useful one, bringing all the characters into close contact over the 24 hours the play covers, eating and drinking, talking, joking, annoying, advising, helping, and hurting each other. Not a whole lot actually happens. There's a dinner, a rehearsal of Stravinsky and Balanchine's Orpheus (with real dancers, who also act), a brief fling (Balanchine could not resist a young dancer to save his life), a series of favors asked and granted, a series of betrayals, personal and institutional, a health crisis. Nothing is decided; nothing is resolved. And yet--for me, at least--it was fully satisfying, a glimpse of how great artists are both human and inhuman in the way they approach their lives: at once needy and ruthless, worldly and gullible, steeped in emotion and oddly cold, quiveringly sensitive and utterly clueless.
Nikolai may or may not be a true picture of the artistic Russian community in the early days of the Cold War, but it certainly feels real. It made us laugh and sniff a little and stand around in the warm summer night by the Lincoln Center fountain, talking about art and how, for some people, it's what's left when everything else has been stripped away, and why it's needed now and forever, however it is defined. Which is pretty much my definition of a good night at the theater.
And that's all I got. I meant to talk about the direction (by David Cromer, who directed the Our Town I loved so much) and the perfectly post-war costumes and the lovely, lived-in set, Michael Ceveris's perfectly gyroscopic Balanchine, lordly, sleek, focussed, and Blair Brown's delightful, delighted, worried, charming Vera Stravinsky. But I'm out of words, and have worked on this long enough. Reading it over, I'm not sure it quite makes sense. It certainly doesn't convey the excitement and enchantment I felt, or why. But it's the best I can do right now. Here's hoping next week will be better. I am So Very Behind.