Scott Klavan: Fire & Air
Fire & Air, by Terrence McNally
Directed by John Doyle
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
January 26, 2018
Fire & Air photo credits: Joan Marcus
Fire & Air, the new work by master playwright Terrence McNally, doesn’t dance. That’s a problem because it’s the story of famed early-20th-century ballet impresario/producer Sergei Pavlovich Diaghliev, and his protégé, the revered Vaslav Nijinkski. There’s much talk about the beauty of movement and art, Diaghliev’s need to flout convention, follow his perpetually dissatisfied, passionate Russian nature to facilitate performances that will astound the snobbish, repressed audiences of Paris, and the world. The talk can be lively and bright and is handled skillfully by a stalwart veteran cast led by adventurous Douglas Hodge as Diaghliev, and directed peerlessly by John Doyle. But after an encouraging start, the lack of dance, and spare use of the ballet scores, keeps the piece locked-in and contained, prevents it from flying out of the brick walls of the modest E. 13th St. theater space of the Classic Stage Company (CSC), into our imaginations and minds’ eyes.
As portrayed here, Diaghliev (Hodge) is a homely, intense man from lowly Russian economic status, beset by the humiliating affliction of boils, making him a counterpoint to the near-perfect young men he trains as performers and choreographers, and often beds. Fussed over by elderly Dunya (Marsha Mason), his mother surrogate from the old country, Diahliev brings his innovative Ballets Russes company to Paris in 1908-09. The group’s dodgy finances are helped along by adviser “Dima” (John Glover), Diaghliev’s cousin and former hometown lover. The company’s forthright, vibrantly sensuous dances meld with electric scores by composers Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, et al, to upend staid ballet tradition, creating controversy and garnering rapturous acclaim throughout Europe.
It is Diaghliev’s mentoring of preeminent dancer Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer) that moves Ballets Russes to an unprecedented level of the art form. Nijnsky’s performance and choreography of Afternoon of a Faun, with music by Claude Debussy, and its frank expression of a blissful, transcendent sexuality, brings outrage, and applause. Diaghliev and Nijinsky carry on a tortured, inter-dependent affair, with the older man both slavishly devoted to and bitterly jealous of his brilliant consort. Diaghliev, forever the “producer,” the man who succeeds by bringing together talent, enabling beauty but not making it himself, watches with misery as in 1913, Nijinsky marries a female dancer; he dismisses him from the company. The impresario replaces his star with naïve, determined Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson) but is forever haunted by the loss of his greatest love, and achievement, Nijinsky.
It’s hard to overstate the value of the accomplishments of the principals here to the modern theater. With the deaths of Edward Albee, A.R. Gurney, and Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally—along with John Guare—is among the last representatives of that generation of prolific giant American playwrights who, starting in the mid ‘60s, used barbed satires and heartfelt dramas to depict the country’s jarringly shifting mores and inner selves. McNally’s portraits of kooky/poignant contemporary earthiness (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and affectionate use of classicism (Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata) delineated the conflict between our rude modern foibles and yearnings for an elevated spiritual growth. CSC’s Artistic Director Doyle’s mesmerizing minimalism in the designing and staging of such Broadway musicals as Sweeney Todd, Company, and The Color Purple, revolutionized the concept of a “revival,” as well as used the stifling new economics of theater to his—and our—advantage, by, in many instances, craftily and winningly having actors play their own instruments on stage.
Douglas Hodge’s award-winning 2010 Broadway turn as Albin in La Cage aux Folles is looked at as a touchstone performance, and his many musicals and plays here and in England mark him as one of today’s most beloved and dependable actors. McNally regular John Glover and Marin Mazzie (usually seen in the best musicals, here as Diaghliev’s longtime friend and benefactor Misia) have dozens of top-drawer shows to their credits and it’s a treat anytime to catch them. Marsha Mason, once an A-list film star of The Goodbye Girl, et al, has transformed herself into a consistently compelling stage actress, willing to sacrifice glamour in favor of truth. CSC, too, gets its props, as it were. It states correctly on its website: it is celebrating 50 years of “reimagining classic stories for contemporary audiences.”
And the first act uses all this talent to good effect. Diaghliev’s back-and-forth feelings for Nijinksy, the Ballet Russes’ assault on pompous Paris, London, and other cities, the shock of Faun’s near-nudity and open explorations of eroticism, including Nijinsky’s unrehearsed simulation of masturbation, are dramatized with entertaining verve. The early tale is a fun, dynamic stage bio-pic, and Doyle’s simple set of triangulated gold chairs, an upstage dance barre with two large mirrors, one on the wall and one tilted on the ceiling, along with artful stage pictures, evoke dreamlike yet palpable sensations of the various settings: a stage, wings, dressing room, hotel, even, at one point, a beach. Ann Hould-Ward’s superb period costumes add to the flavor.
But when Nijinksy leaves the Ballets Russes at the end of Act One, he takes the story with him. The second act, with Diaghliev trying to find the same kind of magic with Massine, never climbs to daring explosion or heartbreaking catharsis. The play pulls back and stalls, loquaciously revisiting the same issues and dilemmas. Massine is not a strong enough foil, Nijinsky’s increasing mental illness is handled with kid gloves, and Diaghliev moans his way to a rather bland demise. With help from The Doors: the show fails to break on through to the other side.
Hodge, on-stage throughout, is burdened, and, it must be said, ultimately burdensome. The actor makes the bold odd choice of giving Diaghliev a barking Americanized delivery, reminiscent of a 1930s small-town Frank Capra mayor. Perhaps the vocal crackling is meant to convey the proletarian ordinariness of Diaghliev. But while risk offers rewards, it can also lead to a fall, which is the result here. We have basically gotten all we want from the performance by the end of the first act, and without support from the other characters, or the script, Hodge/Diaghliev is left to repeat himself, and twist in the wind. James Cusati-Moyer’s Nijinski is handsome, sensitive/arrogant, very fine; considering that this is almost an impossibly daunting role, he really comes through. (Jay Armstrong Johnson as Massine is also solid.) But in the second half, Nijinsky is mostly seen as a memory or vision; he, too, is not allowed to provide the required help.
It might be added the presentation of Russian characters and attitudes in a US show also troubled Describe the Night, a new play by Rajiv Joseph recently at Atlantic Theatre Co. That ambitious three-hour depiction of Stalinist times seen through the experiences of rebellious doomed Jewish writer Isaac Babel, played by Danny Burstein, opted for a quasi-absurdist comic POV and delivery, particularly in the portrayal of a Soviet operative by Zach Grenier. The take was sporadically engaging and inventive, but tended to make safe the horror of the period, to dilute its evil. In Fire, only Mason as babushka Dunya fully succeeds in navigating the divide between American and Russian behavior.
Which brings us back to the missing dance. Certainly, including superlative on-stage ballet was impractical, both in terms of casting and rehearsal. Cusati-Moyer and Armstrong Johnson are highly competent in the form, or look like it, anyway. But who can approximate the brilliance of Nijinsky? Nobody. Right now, there are brief poses, glimpses of exercises at the barre, but no actual dance demonstrations. This hurts, particularly in the second half, which, as said, badly wants a change, a transfiguration, the equivalent of an 11:00 number. Plus, the fantastic, cherished music of Stravinsky, Debussy, and others, is heard only in background whispers. Anyway, some kind of impressionistic dance element is needed in order to get the play off its feet, leaping, to a new height.
(Another comparison might be Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which also exhibited a classical rivalry, between genius Mozart and mediocre Salieri. Fighting the dryness of the material, Amadeus included a dubious yet terrifically enjoyable murder mystery, which took the erudite, fusty history and lifted it to a crowd-pleaser.)
Although this was a full Off-Broadway production, the play, along with Describe the Night, might still be in a stage of development, its producers hoping to alter and edit aspects in the hope of moving it to Broadway. But in order for that to happen, Fire and Air, with all of its prestigious pedigree and artistry, needs some fundamental additions and subtractions. More fire, less air.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.