Review: An Impresario of ‘Fire and Air’ (if He Does Say So Himself)

NEW YORK — There is no credit for choreography in the Classic Stage Company production of “Fire and Air,” which is strange because it’s basically a biography of Sergei Diaghilev.

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Review: An Impresario of ‘Fire and Air’ (if He Does Say So Himself)
, New York Times

NEW YORK — There is no credit for choreography in the Classic Stage Company production of “Fire and Air,” which is strange because it’s basically a biography of Sergei Diaghilev.

You will recall — and if you don’t, the playwright, Terrence McNally, will repeatedly inform you — that Diaghilev, working with his protégé and lover Nijinsky, was the great impresario of modern ballet as it emerged from the fairy-filled mists of the Romantic era. “I invented the 20th century,” McNally’s Diaghilev says humbly.

You witness that process, a little. In one lovely scene, Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) talks Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer) through the opening bars of “The Afternoon of a Faun,” the groundbreaking Ballets Russes production that caused a scandal at its premiere in Paris in 1912. Nijinsky, who choreographed it and played the title role, brought down the curtain with a bit of improvisation: Instead of deeply inhaling his beloved’s scarf, he basically had sex with it, miming masturbation.

Though we don’t see that — it is described by shocked onlookers — a few seconds of the ballet’s prelude are beautifully re-created, from the odd stillness of Nijinsky’s first poses to the pert little tail on his tights. (Ann Hould-Ward designed the terrific costumes.) But the director, John Doyle, never shows us the actual dancing: not from “Faun” or “Jeux” or “Le Sacre du Printemps” or the other epochal works that made Diaghilev’s fame, and form the spine of the play.

Granted, it would have been nearly impossible to restage a Nijinsky ballet. (Diaghilev never allowed the originals to be filmed, though there are charming fakes.) In any case, McNally, making a virtue of necessity, is more interested in the producer than in the product, and in the emotional cost of being a midwife to art instead of an actual artist. “Fire and Air,” which opened Thursday, is less a play about a creator than a eulogy for a monster — a monster with the grandeur and pathos, as his oldest friend says, of “a man whose only talent was other people.”

Hodge, a Tony winner for the 2010 revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” blusters, whines and suffers wonderfully, coloring in the character all the way to the outlines, and a little beyond. He embodies not only the toxic id of a perpetual child — in his 40s, Diaghilev is still attended by his childhood nurse — but also the barbarian glint of a sociopath and the vulgarity of a showman. He schmoozes his patron, Misia Sert, while in alternate breaths insulting her. He soliloquizes his own greatness. (The play’s title is a self-description.) He is visionary and vastly entertaining; he even hooves, far too briefly, a thrilling, thumping czardas.

But if Diaghilev is dramatic, he doesn’t much lend himself to drama. The best friend (John Glover), the patron (Marin Mazzie) and the nurse (Marsha Mason) are not antagonists or foils but enablers; McNally doesn’t give them any structural function. The best friend tuts. The patron delivers pep talks and canned historical morsels. (“Vaslav’s pouting because neither of his ballets is on the tour while six of Fokine’s are.”) The nurse knits.

Nijinsky has more to do but is still a cipher, despite Cusati-Moyer’s feral energy. His sexual relationship with Diaghilev, which frames the first act, is almost entirely one-sided, and not just because the beautiful man in his early 20s does not deeply desire the man with the thickening middle, the white streak in his dyed black hair (the Russians call him “Chinchilla”) and the boils all over his chest. The play does not seem to mind this abusive liaison, seeing it as just another excusable example of Diaghilev’s determination to foster greatness.

What’s not excusable is that the relationship is one-sided dramatically. Nijinsky is a dancer, not a wit, and since we don’t see him dance we experience his scenes with Diaghilev as hopelessly unequal. When the young man declares dully that the faun must be naked, Diaghilev gets the snappy comeback: “God in His infinite wisdom created tights and a dance belt.”

That line, and others, reminded me of how droll McNally can be, even in dark plays like “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “The Lisbon Traviata.” Also how withering. In “Master Class,” another meditation on the prerogatives of art, he has Maria Callas tear a trio of voice students to shreds — but they at least get to fight back with voices filled with the unanswerable charisma of youth.

I suppose Diaghilev’s hopeless passion for Nijinsky is meant to be a similarly equalizing force in “Fire and Air”: It weakens and humanizes the more powerful figure. And Doyle does make some memorable stage pictures out of it, on a gleaming, gilded set of his own design. In the play’s best scene, the producer strips the dancer of his costume during the intermission after the “Faun” premiere and then dresses him for the next piece, Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose,” as if he were putting a child in pajamas. (“Right leg!”) Diaghilev then proceeds to do with the discarded tights what the faun did with the scarf.

But after Nijinsky marries one of the company’s ballerinas at the end of the first act, Diaghilev goes haywire and so does the play. The second act tries to focus on efforts to groom Léonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson) as a Nijinsky replacement, in both the Ballets Russes and bed. Unfortunately, Massine is even younger and, as scripted, more peripheral. Starved of dramatic propulsion, the play devolves into a symposium on aesthetics, a spectral memorial service and a gloss on “Death in Venice.”

There may yet be a lively and moving work to be mined from McNally’s research and sympathy for Diaghilev. It would need more characters actually doing things, though, as in Richard Nelson’s engrossing “Nikolai and the Others,” a play also focused on the creation of art, in that case Balanchine’s.

But aside from a few golden moments, “Fire and Air” is inert. It has only partly emerged into life, like a statue still half-stuck in the marble, or a faun forever frozen in place.


Production Notes:

‘Fire and Air’

Through Feb. 25 at the Classic Stage Company, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, classicstage.org. Running time: 2 hours.

By Terrence McNally; directed and designed by John Doyle; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Matt Stine; wigs, hair and makeup by J. Jared Janas; props by Andrew Diaz; production stage manager, Libby Unsworth; general manager, Teresa Gozzo.

Cast: James Cusati-Moyer (Vaslav Nijinsky), John Glover (Dmitry “Dima” Filosofov), Douglas Hodge (Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Leonide Massine), Marsha Mason (Dunya) and Marin Mazzie (Misia Sert).

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