A scene from <i>Nikolai and the Others</i>.
A scene from Nikolai and the Others.
(© Paul Kolnik)
Russian intellectuals are hardly a new sight onstage at Lincoln Center, but audiences expecting the skillfull melding of fact and fiction that were the hallmark in Tom Stoppard's three-part The Coast of Utopia will be disappointed by Richard Nelson's Nikolai and the Others, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Like Stoppard's masterwork, this ambitious play has much to say about the nature of making art, the difficulties of living abroad, and the meaning of friendship. But the 2 ½-hour piece hopscotches around these subjects so quickly, and sometimes so clumsily, that it never fully settles at a central dilemma onto which we can grasp.

As did Stoppard, Nelson plays fast and loose with historical facts. He gathers some of Russia's greatest émigrés, including choreographer George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), composers Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) and Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), and set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), for a weekend outing in 1948 on a Connecticut farm (exquisitely realized by Marsha Ginsberg). The group has come together to celebrate the ailing Sudeikin's birthday as well as to watch an early rehearsal of Balanchine and Stravinsky's new ballet, Orpheus. (As Nelson admits in his "Playwright's Note," Sudeikin actually died in 1946 and all of the rehearsal work on Orpheus happened in New York City.)

Even arts aficionados will find much of the play's first section confusing, especially in deciphering the relationships among the other guests, who include Stravinsky's current wife and Sudeikin's ex-wife, Vera (Blair Brown); Nabokov's ex-wife, Natasha (Kathryn Erbe) and current fiancé, Alexsi Karpov (Anthony Cochrane); character actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and wife, Lisa (Betsy Aidem); as well as the house's owner, Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris).

Some of the play is a standard behind-the-scenes drama, as numerous sections are devoted to the creation of Orpheus — including excerpts performed by Balanchine's wife, Maria Tallchief (the elegant Natalia Alonso), and Nicholas Magallanes (the handsome Michael Rosen), but the soon-to-be-legendary dance piece proves to be more of a backdrop than one might imagine.

Nelson eventually makes clear that his larger concern is exploring the animosity that Russians felt in this country after World War II, constantly suspected of being communists. Nabokov has essentially given up composing to work for the U.S. government to help his countrymen succeed in their new homeland. He does everything from requesting favors to ensure they are not called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to buying a silk curtain Balanchine has demanded for the set of Orpheus.

In the play's second act, however, Nabokov has second thoughts about his path, especially after the arrival of famed conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place) and smarmy fellow-government employee Chip Bohlen (Gareth Saxe). But we realize that not only has "Nicky" perhaps lost his inspiration as a composer, his fellow émigrés have learned to rely on their new problem solver, trapping him in this new occupation. Kunken makes us feel Nabokov's inner turmoil, but not until the show's last scenes.

With 18 speaking parts, these top-notch actors only get to present brief outlines of their characters, even under the extremely capable direction of David Cromer. Still, the strongest impressions are made by Cerveris as the imperious and inscrutable Balanchine and Glover as the appropriately pompous Stravinsky.

Perhaps Nikolai needs to be reconceived as multi-part drama or television miniseries to be completely fulfilling. Instead, it is more like an undercooked pierogi: somewhat tasty but hard to digest.