James Cusati Moyer in ‘Fire and Air.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Matthew Wexler
Making art is a tumultuous thing. Creatives have been known to cut off ears, overdose in a plethora of manners, and/or basically treat everyone around them like shit when they’re in their “process.” There’s not nearly as much reflection regarding the producer. That ringmaster who must juggle finances and artistic temperament to ultimately bring to life the vision of those he or she so desperately believes in. Terrence McNally’s latest play, Fire and Air, delves into this very subject, using the framework of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a means to explore the producer’s artistic and personal obsessions.
Widely considered as one of the most influential dance company’s of the 20th century, Ballets Russes was famous for its cross-medium collaborations, bringing together the likes of Picasso, Coco Chanel, Stravinsky, and others. In director/designer John Doyle’s production for Classic Stage Company (CSC), these references are occasionally alluded to and never embodied in the minimalist design—a signature of his work and now of CSC.
Instead, the play focuses on Diaghilev’s (Douglas Hodge) most intimate relationships: his muse and collaborator Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer); his old friend and first cousin Dmitry Filosofov (John Glover); his nurse Dunya (Marsha Mason); his latter muse Leonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson); and his “une femme eternelle et fascinante” as McNally describes (or what 21st century millennials might refer to as his BFF), Misia Sert (Marin Mazzie).
The plot, if there is one, is as thin as a dancer’s leotard. Instead, we are submerged into the world of Diaghilev’s volatile temperament and artistic (and often sexually driven) exploits. It is the age-old conflict of art versus commerce. There’s not enough money to produce the work and Diaghilev and Nijinsky butt heads during the creative process, Diaghilev saying at one point, “I am drowning in geniuses. And I’m the one who must endure their tantrums. When is it my turn to erupt?”
It is a subtle foreshadowing that comes to fruition after Nijinsky breaks away from the complicated relationship. Diaghilev is furious when he discovers that Nijinsky has married the Hungarian actress Romola de Pulszky, but ultimately turns his gaze on Massine as his next muse.
McNally’s script plays with a dreamy reality, but the production’s physical limitations often left me wondering what was happening and where. The talented ensemble relishes in his catchy turn of phrase, which avid theatergoers have appreciated for more than 50 years. Hodge’s performance feels the most anachronistic of the bunch. While I imagine he’s tapping into the impresario’s historically documented temperament, I more often felt like I was watching a stripped-down Max Bialystock from Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
When the play’s themes of love emerge, though, it’s impossible not to be moved. As Dunya rambles about the death of a childhood pet, her sentiment rises above.
When she died, I couldn’t forgive her for leaving me. I told my mother I would never love anyone or anything again. I thought that dog had taught me all I needed to know about love. But life has taught me it’s not possible not to love.
Diaghilev’s love for art seems to transcend even his obsessions for the men in his life, like a phoenix rising from the ashes as the curtain ascends into the rafters.
Fire and Air
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through February 25
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.