Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s stories have been told before, both on stage and on the screen. But if the focus has often been on the dancer, McNally has chosen instead to focus on Nijinsky’s mentor and producer–and much older lover–Diaghilev.
If Diaghilev was an oversized and booming personality, he is here brought to life in a performance by Douglas Hodge that can best be described with the same adjectives. (McNally even has Diaghilev say, “Did you know I was a God,” and “I invented the 20th century.” McNally’s Diaghilev also refers to Nijinsky as “Apollo,” and later says: “I have a shrewd eye, a heart too close to bursting when it comes to beauty–and very little patience with the ordinary.”) Hodge sports Diaghilev’s white stripe in his predominantly inky black, dyed hair, just as he carries the maestro’s signature cane, and wears his top hat and black suits–not to mention his monocle.
The other figures we meet include Diaghilev’s “nurse” Dunya (Marsha Mason, who spends the bulk of the play sitting in a chair, knitting), his sort of business manager and ex-lover Dmitry known as Dima (McNally regular John Glover), and his sponsor Misia Sert (Marin Mazzie). (When Diaghilev tells Dmitry that Nijinsky “is the love of my life,” Dmitry says, “I remember when I was.”) We also eventually–in the second act, to be precise–meet Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who Diaghilev is grooming to replace Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer) after he marries another dancer and leaves the Ballets Russes (and Diaghilev) to open his own ballet company.
While McNally makes it clear that Nijinsky failed to make his new venture work and that Massine failed to become another Nijinsky, he tells his tale in a kind of roaming fashion, even as the characters frequently roam on and off the stage like phantoms–which especially becomes irritating because of the creaking wooden floor of the stage space. And after Diaghilev’s demise–which is where Fire and Air ends–Massine would become a very successful choreographer for the Ballets Russes, under the leadership of Colonel de Basil.
If Hodge stands out as Diaghilev, Glover also offers a strong and solid Dmitry. But what’s missing from the play is any depth to the characters which basically receive a superficial treatment. Missing too are fascinating details to be found in other sources, such as learning of Nijinsky’s disgust every morning to awaken with the stains of Diaghilev’s black hair-dye on the pillow.
Though the production has been designed by its director, John Doyle, there is no scenery to speak of, except for a gold framed mirror on the rear wall, another framed mirror angled and dangling above it, and five gold chairs. It all suggests the opulence for which Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes were known. Opulent, too, are the costumes designed by Ann Hould-Ward with everyone clad in black except for Nijinsky who is in colorful and playful ballet costumes.
Though we never really see any of the ballets, the story of Fire and Air is built around Nijinsky’s principle dances, including “The Afternoon of a Faun” and “Le Sacre du Printemps,” the first of which created a scandal when Nijinsky mimed masturbating, and the second when it introduced Stravinsky’s terribly modern score, which many found offensive.
Fire and Air (through February 25, 2018)
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: two hours including an intermission