Fire and Air
Terrence McNally writes a new play about the Ballets Russes.
Oscar Wilde, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Thomas Mann all get a shout-out in Fire and Air, Terrence McNally's ambitious if disappointing new play at Classic Stage Company. None of these invocations of the gay pantheon will come as a surprise to longtime fans of McNally, who is the foremost dramatist of a certain kind of queer mythology: steeped in pre-Stonewall history and enamored with high culture. While his fixation has primarily been opera, McNally shifts his focus to ballet in this latest work, dramatizing the tempestuous personalities that made up the most influential ballet troupe of the 20th century, the Ballets Russes.
It's 1913 and company founder Sergei Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) intends to cure the French of their appalling taste in dance by drawing together exceptionally talented people to create a truly Russian art form. One of those is Vaslav Nijinsky (a bewitching James Cusati-Moyer), who changes the world of dance forever with his revolutionary choreography to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Diaghilev becomes obsessed with the teenage Nijinsky, coveting him sexually as well as artistically. His cousin and business manager, Dima (John Glover), warns him about this behavior. What will happen when Nijinsky grows up and takes a wife? Aspiring young dancer Leonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson) thinks he has an answer.
As they surely were for the characters depicted above, women are an afterthought. Four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason plays Diaghilev's nurse, Dunya, who mostly sits onstage knitting until one of the men barks orders at her. The job of Marin Mazzie, as the pianist Misia Sert, seems to be to occasionally glide onstage and be fabulous (which she does quite well), but we never really understand what draws her to Diaghilev. When he dramatically proclaims that women have been good to him all his life (in contrast to the fickle boys who always abandon him), Misia wryly retorts, "Then you should try being better to us." A truer line is not uttered in the play.
That's not for lack of trying on McNally's part. His free-flowing dramaturgy ignores the physics of time and space to stab at the heart of some hidden universal truth. Unfortunately, he often misses and pokes the gallbladder of reductive cliché: "He's a boy," Dima protests when Diaghilev confesses his love for Nijinsky. "No," Diaghilev cuts him short, "he's a genius." We can practically see the jump cuts in the sizzle reel of this second-rate biopic. Diaghilev's prediction that his revolution will outlast the Bolsheviks, while undeniably correct, is born of the same facile hindsight.
Diaghilev is the undisputed center of this universe, and Hodge plays every moment as if he's fully aware of this. He chews the scenery like a starving Rottweiler, producing just as much spittle. "Only extraordinary people have nightmares," he dismissively tells Dunya during the opening moments, just as he wakes from one. His overwrought grandeur becomes even more absurd as his black hair dye smudges across his face (Hodge and makeup designer J. Jared Janas deserve points for historical accuracy, since the real Nijinsky complained about this repellant habit in his diary). Hodge's interactions with Cusati-Moyer and Johnson might just make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, as he physically commits to his portrayal of a middle-aged man worshipping, threatening, and physically undressing the young men in tights. He's like a dance mom possessed by the spirit of Harvey Weinstein.
As staged by director John Doyle, Hodge's scenes with Johnson more resemble an afterschool tutoring session than an affair, with Diaghilev quizzing Massine on the names of ancient Greek columns. Still, Doyle and McNally leave room for the possibility of an uneasy symbiosis, as the younger men seize an opportunity for social advancement and Diaghilev dances a dangerous czardas on the border between pedagogy and pederasty. It's a daring shade of gray as we enter an age of black-and-white sexual judgments.
Doyle's unencumbered staging meshes nicely with McNally's style, which calls for one scene to bleed into the next on an open stage (also serving as scenic designer, Doyle creates every setup with just five chairs). Ann Hould-Ward's costumes evoke the period and the ambitions of their wearers, although there is a dispiriting lack of color for a play about a company famous for its vibrant aesthetic. Matt Stine gorgeously underscores the action with some of the music commissioned for the Ballets Russes, including Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, a major Nijinsky triumph. His use of Wagner's "Liebestod" theme, however, feels only vaguely related, harking back to an earlier McNally one-act.
McNally's propensity to recycle ideas highlights the unifying themes of his universe: unrequited love, functional if unhealthy relationships, and the tyranny of expectations transcendent art imposes over flawed human minds and bodies. Fire and Air touches on all three, with moments of grace, ugliness, and uncertainty. It may not be transcendent, but it is unmistakably human.