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Fire and Air

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 1, 2018

Douglas Hodge and James Cusati-Moyer
Photo by Joan Marcus

After sitting through Terrence McNally's dismal Fire and Air at Classic Stage Company, a play about ballet that contains no actual dancing, I remembered McNally is also the playwright who gave us Deuce, a play about tennis that contains no actual tennis playing. As insufferable as Deuce, and perhaps worse, Fire and Air is a turgid exercise in artistic hubris that boasts a talented cast vainly endeavoring to make a tedious play relevant when it needs to be sent back to the drawing board.

Ostensibly an attempt to explore the obsessive relationship between the artistic impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who met in 1908 when the former was 35 and the latter was 19, Fire and Air doesn't know what it wants to be. It roughly covers the twenty-year period following their meeting (when Nijinsky was passed to Diaghilev by his previous lover, Prince Pavel Lvov, who had grown tired of him), thru the formation and international success of Diaghilev's glamorous Ballets Russes, Nijinsky's choreographic triumphs between 1912 and 1913 (with The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux and The Rite of Spring), their breakup and estrangement (which was precipitated by Nijinsky's spontaneous marriage to Hungarian groupie Romola de Pulszky in 1913 while on tour in South America), Diaghilev's replacement of Nijinsky with Leonid Massine, and, finally, Diaghilev's death in 1929. It's a bullet-point list of perfunctory biographical moments, but McNally's script doesn't say anything meaningful in their recitation. There is no depth to the dialogue and, though his writing is facile, McNally says nothing perceptive about how Diaghilev and Nijinsky's revolutionary relationship changed themselves or the world of dance.

Even though the direction of Fire and Air by John Doyle is uncharacteristically flat, the show's biggest liability in CSC's production is Douglas Hodge's unleashed performance as Diaghilev. A Tony and Olivier winner for his delicious portrayal of Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, Hodge is an accomplished, renaissance artist who has specialized in the works of Pinter, among others. But his wild-eyed, bi-polar Diaghilev is utterly out of control. In what may be the most overwrought performance I've ever seen on a stage, his histrionics would be entertaining if they weren't so wildly out of synch with the performances of his excellent supporting cast. Did Doyle direct him to give this performance, or was it pure self-indulgence? Who can say?

What I can say is the rest of the cast are giving beautifully modulated performances within the constraints of bringing McNally's flawed script to life. It's wonderful to see Marsha Mason onstage again as Diaghilev's ever-practical nursemaid, Dunya, and it's also a joy to see the luminous Marin Mazzie as Diaghilev's lifelong friend and benefactor, Misia Sert. It's worth noting the golden-voiced Mazzie played Misia on a 2015 PS Classics studio recording of a musical based on her life featuring the music of Vernon Duke with the lyrics of Barry Singer. Sadly, Mazzie doesn't get to sing in Fire and Air, though it could only have enhanced the proceedings if she had.

Marin Mazzie, Douglas Hodge, Marsha Mason
Photo by Joan Marcus

Having played the gay hustler in the recent, misguided revival of Six Degrees of Separation on Broadway, James Cusati-Moyer is no stranger to being naked onstage which is a plus in his subdued portrayal of Nijinsky. But despite the fact he possesses the beautiful body of a dancer, he's not actually a dancer and that's a problem in the intimate environs of CSC's performing space. (The intimacy of the space also highlights Cusati-Moyer's tattoos on his left arm as well as a midline, thoracotomy scar on his chest – all of which are noticeable and distracting. Has no one at CSC heard of body makeup?) And as if being asked to portray arguably the greatest male dancer in history wasn't challenging enough, it's asking too much of an actor to bring a lifetime of body carriage, leg positioning and physical movement to bear when it's simply not part of his history. That lifetime of dance discipline IS part of Jay Armstrong Johnson's history, however, as an accomplished dancer who recently starred as Chip in the stunning Broadway revival of On The Town. As Leonid Massine, the dancer who replaced Nijinsky in the Ballets Russes and quickly became its primary choreographer, Johnson convincingly embodies a dancer even if his part is underwritten. Filling out the cast is John Glover as Diaghilev's cousin, Dmitry ‘Dima' Filosofov, who, according to McNally, nursed a lifetime passion for him. Like Mason and Mazzie, Glover is nicely restrained in a thankless role.

Ultimately Fire and Air raises more questions than it answers. Why didn't Doyle cast a real ballet dancer as Nijinsky? Why isn't Nijinsky's sister Bronislava, who played such a pivotal role throughout his life, portrayed? Why isn't Nijinsky's wife Romola portrayed? Why isn't the illness that killed Diaghilev, diabetes, ever mentioned but his boils are constantly referenced? Was it just an excuse for Hodge to roll around on the stage in agonizing pain? And, most perplexing, though we hear the famous music from many of their ballets, why is no one dancing? After two-hours, no one will blame audiences if they simply don't care.

Fire and Air
Through February 25
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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