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A CurtainUp Review
Fire And Air

The itinerant company's experiments galvanized the art world in their time and forever altered the trajectory of art and culture in the 21st Century.— A comment from Sophia Andreassi's feature "The Legacy of the Ballets Russes" included in the program of Terrence McNally's play about the man in charge of the company
L-R: Marsha Mason as Dunya, John Glover sdDimitry "Dima" Filosofov, Douglas Hodge as Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev and Marin Mazzie as Misia Sert (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Terrence McNally and John Doyle first got to know each other three years ago when Doyle helmed a terrific revival of Kander and Ebb's dark musical The Visit , which McNally adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play. Now that Mr. Doyle has settled into a permanent post as the Classic Stage's artistic director and he's presenting the world premiere McNally new bio-drama, Fire and Air which unfortunately, doesn't add any new glory to either the playwright or the director.

Doyle is doing double duty as director and designer. Make that triple duty. since, according to a background feature by Brian Scott Lipton in TDF's magazine Stages, Doyle also guided the playwright to streamline the script he originally submitted to him. That draft featured some 20 characters. The version that's now at CSC's 13th Street home includes just six.

These cuts put the focus on the five people who played key roles in the life and career of the dynamic, if dictatorial, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge). It was his vision of ballet as a fusion of movement, music and art, inspired innovation in all areas of creative endeavor. The characters who escaped these drastic cuts are Diaghilev's best friends Dimitry "Dima" Filosofov (John Glover) and Misia Sert (Marin Mazzie); Dunya (Marsha Mason), his ever devoted nurse and housekeeper; and his most famous protégés and lovers, Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moye) and Leonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson).

This spare cast is of course very much in keeping with Doyle's down-to-the-basics design style. He's once again using a runway stage surrounded by the audience on three sides. The only props are some chairs and two huge gold framed mirrors at one of the vertical ends. One of the mirrors is tilted above the other. It makes for a grand overall look but doesn't really add anything vital or meaningful to the production.

The way Doyle has the actors pick up and re-position chairs as they move around reminded me of musicals like Company and Sweeney Todd that he famously and effectively staged with actor-musicians. Which brings me to my first and hardly only problem with this new Doyle-McNally collaboration.

Fire and Air may not be a musical but it IS a story in which music and dancing are major elements. But seeing actors moving chairs around is more awkward than innovative. Also, while audiences didn't need to be familiar with Maria Callas or to be opera buffs to easily understand Master Class and enjoy several magnificent arias. The two gifted young dancers and lovers we meet in Fire and Air never get to dance. Which given the rather labored pace, is sorely missed.

Unlike Master Class, what happens during the two hour running time is often confusing. Even a knowledgeable theater goer is likely to miss the nuances of the interactions between Hodges' Diaghilev and the other characters— all of whom, except Masha Mason's somewhat endearing Dunya, are based on real people.

Marin Mazzie and John Glover are both accomplished Broadway veterans and lend good support — she as his best friend and patron, he as his aristocratic cousin who becomes his manager (and would like to be more). Unfortunately, neither the script or the directer has given them sufficient opportunity to shine.
L-R: Douglas Hodge as Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev and James Cusati-Moyer as VaslavNijinsky (Photo: Joan Marcus)

As for Douglas Hodge, the classically trained British actor best known for his Pinter play interpretations and his delightful and incredibly poignant Albin in La Cage Aux Folles, certainly imbues the groundbreaking impresario with plenty of emotional fire. However, this role isn't an ideal fit for him and Doyle seems to have encouraged him to chew the non-existent scenery. As characterized here, we not only see Diaghilev as a very intense man with a complicated love life, but so unstable that he seems as schizophrenic as Nijinsky ended up being.

It's Diaghilev's relationship with Nijinsky that's the main dramatic element here. While James Cusati-Moyer is not a dancer, he has the looks to make you understand Diaghilev's obsessive sexual attraction. Actually, Mr. Hodge's most memorable and best scene comes after Nijinksy leaves to marry a woman (a situation dramatized in a short-lived play, Romola & Nijinsky). In that scene Diaghilev puts another young dancer, Leonide Massine, through his paces. The scene stands out not just because Hodge does it so well, but because he's got a fine match in Jay Armstrong Johnson (You may remember him as one of the three sailors in the last Broadway revival of On the Town).

While Mr. Doyle's design and direction are disappointing, bravos are due to his designers. And though Fire and Air has some witty dialogue, it's lesser rather than better-than-ever McNally.

Finally, if you go to see the play, be sure to get there in time to read Sophi Andreasi's excellent program feature about the legacy of the Ballets Russes. Her text is followed by a wonderful 4-page, illustrated timeline.

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Fire And Air by Terrence McNally
Directed by John Doyle
Cast: James Cusati-Moyer (VaslavNijinsky), John Glover (Dimitry "Dima" Filosofov), Douglas Hodge (Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Leonide Massine), Marsha Mason (Dunya) and Marin Mazzie (Misia Sert).
Scenic design by John Doyle
Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting design by Jane Cox
Sound design by Matt Stine
Wig, hair and make-up design by J. Jared Janas.
Stage Manager: Libby Unsworth
Running Time: 2 hours, including one ten-minute intermission
Classic Stage at.136 East 13th Street
From 1/17/18; opening 2/01/18; closing 3/02/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/29 press preview.

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