Review: ‘Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart’ Has Music and Passion. But Not Romance.

Posted June 3, 2018 7:39 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Anyone who has enjoyed an online flirtation followed by a disappointing face-to-face knows that sometimes real life just can’t match the intensity of a good correspondence.

Perhaps this is why Nadezhda von Meck steadfastly refused to meet composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, despite exchanging intellectually stimulating, openhearted letters with him for almost 14 years. In what may be the epitome of platonic 19th-century romance, she shared her walk schedule when they were both in Florence so they wouldn’t run into each other by chance.

It is that bond — intimate yet abstract, emotional yet remote — that the Ensemble for the Romantic Century explores in “Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart,” a compelling play with music at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

A wealthy widow and self-described recluse, von Meck (Shorey Walker) subsidized Tchaikovsky (Joey Slotnick) so he could focus on his music without having to hold a day job. They started their epistolary relationship when she was 45, which made her, she wrote, “practically dead,” and thus grateful for “the chance to feel alive by allowing me to write to you anytime I wish.”

Eve Wolf’s script stitches together excerpts pulled from hundreds of letters, which means Slotnick (suitably sober) and Walker (suggesting a certain obsessiveness) share the stage without actually talking directly to each other. The conceit largely works.

Unlike a program that explored the same subject as part of Bard College’s “Tchaikovsky and His World” festival, Wolf’s script dwells less on the duo’s heady discussions about music and art than on their thorny emotional bond.

Tchaikovsky and von Meck were outsiders who shared a conflicted view of matrimony, to say the least: she, because it had made her a procreating machine to the detriment of her independence and intellectual life; he because he was gay and stuck in a marriage of convenience.

The play draws from Tchaikovsky’s frank letters to his younger brother Modest — a confidante and occasional collaborator, and who happened to be gay as well — to juxtapose his tortured sexuality with his rewarding back-and-forths with von Meck.

Following the theater company’s usual approach (see also: “Van Gogh’s Ear,” “The Dreyfus Affair”), and with director Donald T. Sanders at the helm once more, the text is interspersed with music performed live by a chamber ensemble, which here includes the pianist Ji. The segments sometimes successfully illustrate a point, especially when the tenor Adrian Kramer performs his four songs (the show is named after one of them).

But just as often the music interrupts the narrative flow, with Slotnick and Walker awkwardly trying to appear lost in deep thoughts until they get to talk again. The dancer Daniel Mantei’s contributions actually feel extraneous, as he doesn’t have much room to maneuver on Vanessa James’ intimate set, which nicely evokes an Old World of gigantic drapes and writing desks.

Despite these flaws, “None but the Lonely Heart” makes us understand the enduring appeal of Tchaikovsky and von Meck’s story — and suggests their correspondence amounts to a spellbinding shared body of work.

“Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart” runs through June 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, New York City; 212-279-4200, romanticcentury.org. Running time: 2 hours.