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You’ll want to learn more about the legendary dance company Ballets Russes, its impresario Sergei Diaghilev and star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky after seeing Terrence McNally’s new drama being given its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. Not because Fire and Air is so good that it piques your curiosity, mind you, but rather because the play is so lifeless that the real story must certainly be more interesting. It’s the sort of historical drama that makes one yearn for the vivid theatricality of a Wikipedia page.
McNally presumably must have been fascinated by the real-life figures central to this work, but you wouldn’t know it from what’s onstage. The play has certainly been given starry treatment by director-designer John Doyle, with a cast including Tony Award winner (La Cage Aux Folles) Douglas Hodge as Diaghilev and such estimable performers as John Glover, Marin Mazzie, Marsha Mason and Jay Armstrong Johnson in supporting roles. Alas, it all goes for naught.
The play’s central focus is Diaghilev’s romantic as well as artistic obsession with Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer). Upon seeing the then-teenage dancer for the first time onstage, Diaghilev proclaims “He’s Apollo!” He promptly makes Nijinsky the star of his company, with the charismatic dancer proving quite eager to manipulate the much older man’s besottedness to further his career. Several years later, when Nijinsky marries a fellow dancer while on tour, the heartbroken Diaghilev promptly dismisses him and designates Leonide Massine (Armstrong) as his heir apparent.
The supporting characters include Diaghilev’s cousin and loyal friend Dima (Glover); his devoted, long-suffering nurse Dunya (Mason); and his wealthy patron Misia Sert (Mazzie). But for much of the running time they are given little to do beyond making occasional offhand comments about Diaghilev, whose lengthy monologues threaten to turn the evening into a one-man show. McNally frequently has him delivering lofty artistic pronouncements of this sort: “My mission is as sacred as the Crusades. They went in search of the True Cross. I am on a quest for true Russian art! Do I exhaust you with my enthusiasm?”
Well, yes. Even such potentially epochal moments as when Diaghilev berates the audience who have just loudly booed and hissed after the infamous world premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring feel forced and artificial. “I shall be brief,” he tells the crowd. “You are idiots. You have been shown a masterpiece … I detest you.”
There are plenty of problems besides the writing. Hodge plays Diaghilev less like an imperious, driven figure and more like he’s auditioning to play Max Bialystock in a dinner theater run of The Producers. Cusati-Moyer cuts a striking, lithe figure as Nijinsky, often performing shirtless — and sometimes even less clothed. But he lacks the necessary intensity to suggest the character’s underlying mental illness. Glover and Mazzie, the latter looking particularly gorgeous in her elegant period costumes, are first-rate as usual, but they spend much of their time onstage looking like they’re wondering why they’re there. And while she makes the most of her earth-mother character, it’s distressing to see the four-time Oscar-nominated Mason mostly relegated to a quiet corner with her knitting.
As for Doyle’s direction, his propensity for minimalism for its own sake has long since worn out its welcome. Upon entering the theater, one’s heart sinks immediately upon spotting the stage featuring nothing more than a few chairs and giant mirrors in the background. His staging supplies no memorable imagery or stage movement to provide relief from the exposition-laden dialogue. While one would hardly expect to see ballet dancing in the small playing area, some visual atmosphere to supplement the brief snatches of music by Stravinsky and Debussy would have been helpful.
“We rehearse spontaneity until we achieve it,” Diaghilev chides his rebellious star dancer at one point. Judging by the lack of heat and airlessness in Fire and Air, it’s clear that more rehearsal, and several rewrites, were desperately needed.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York
Cast: James Cusati-Moyer, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Marsha Mason, Marin Mazzie
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director and set designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Matt Stine
Presented by the Classic Stage Company
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