Nikolai and the Others is a new play written by Richard Nelson about a gathering of Russian emigrant artists at a place in the woods of Connecticut. The time is the spring of 1948.
The modernist composer Igor Stravinsky and the famous choreographer George Balanchine are working on a new ballet, Orpheus. Their compatriot friends, lovers, spouses, relatives are present at the house too; the only non-Russians there are an American called Chip and two young dancers, Nicholas and Maria.
The gathering is organised in honour of one of the guests, Sergey Sudeikin, a renowned but very much impoverished painter. Sudeikin is old beyond his years and frail, but his bitterness is lively. The Russians discuss Orpheus, politics in the world of culture, each other.
The play is named after a composer Nikolai Nabokov (N.B. not to confuse with the writer Vladimir Nabokov) who is, at the time of the fictional events described in the play, has got an office job, part of which is helping out the bohemian Russians like Stravinsky with visa and other emigration issues.
Nikolai, or Nicky, Nika, is greatly inspired by fragments of Orpheus, presented to the gathering, and thinking to resume composing. But his inspiration is wounded when he learns of certain opinions of the group on his talent.
The play definitely works better off page, as any play does, the music and choreography should make it a really unforgettable piece. The snake-pit relationships within the Russian expat community are the undercurrent in this play, but they further enhance the dramatic effect of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
I didn’t think the play showed any features specific to Russians apart from one: my people are very bad at containing their emotions or mean remarks.
The play is mostly dealing with materialism and if the theme of art has any room in the play at all, it is only in technical terms: the story of the myth, the dancing routine. The craft. Not the soul of art.
The only big art idea comes from Sudeikin’s speech:
Strip away everything else from a person, and the art is what you have left.
Perhaps, the point of the play is that geniuses are just like any other people. They have small problems in their lives too. They need to fit in. They need to be loved and understood, even if they come across as cold, distant and often behave like spoiled children. Let’s come up with an excuse that their venom is merely a by-product of their art.