By the principle that history, the human condition, and art itself are some of the deepest subjects addressed in the arts, it stands to reason that a work about a historical figure with significant artistic shrewdness is as high-risk-high-reward as theatre gets. Creating and executing such a work is a matter of provocation and sustenance. Or, in other words, of fire and air. Precisely what the Classic Stage Company aims to do and is celebrated for. Fire and Air, about Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, draws from a rich history of a man whose contributions to the arts cannot be overstated. A veritable dream team of artists was responsible for presenting this work, penned by playwriting luminary Terrence McNally.
So why does it fall short from its great promise? Short version: The building blocks, though individually brilliant, don’t complement one another.
The biggest clash comes between the writing and the direction. The play is paced like a racehorse, moving relentlessly and unceasingly. McNally can wax as poetic as he wants; one barely absorbs the nuances of one monologue delivered rapid-fire before the next one comes on. The play loses much of its literary merit to the cosmos when the audience isn’t given room to breathe. In this sense, it is all fire and no air.
As wondrously as it’s worked in other cases, director John Doyle’s trademark minimalistic style is simply out of place when dealing with the splendor of the Ballet Russes and its larger-than-life characters. The wooden floor of the CSC’s stage is set only with four chairs that offer multiple combinations for different locations, along with a mirror in the back like that of a dance studio, and another on the ceiling tilted towards the audience. They are, for one, insufficient in capturing the play’s various settings, exacerbated by the scene changes. It’s not that these transitions weren’t smooth, it’s that they were imperceptible. The audience is transported at one point immediately from a Venetian beach to the ballet studio with only an abrupt change in the topic of dialogue. The minimalism in both set and staging means the contrast in atmosphere between one scene and another is left almost entirely to the actors (and maybe the sound designer on a few occasions), but it’s an overreliance. Each act feels like one long scene. It does not help that, during some sections of the play, the actors don’t fully exit but remain in the background.
Which begs mention of the acting. The cast is stacked only with the finest actors, but their compatibility with this work is at times questionable. Dialogue-wise, Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) is the lone driver of the plot, which would matter less if the play didn’t stand solely on his shoulders. McNally writes beautiful, witty lines, but they become tertiary if not gratuitous for any character other than Diaghilev; the play feels like an extended Diaghilev monologue with the other actors interjecting every now and then. True, Diaghilev is in a world of his own while those around him live on Earth, but the adverse effect on the rest of the cast is that they become like a supporting ensemble. And one doesn’t bring in talent like John Glover (Dimitry "Dima" Filosofov), Marin Mazzie (Misia Sert), and Marsha Mason (Dunya) to appear disconnected. All three gave stellar yet underutilized performances, anchoring Diaghilev both to and from his lovers. James Cusati-Moyer (Vaslav Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Leonide Massine) were strong casting choices for their respective roles; both embodied the drive and poise of their characters and even their mythic roles in the ballets without doing much dancing. Douglas Hodge as Diaghilev, though brilliantly acted, is difficult to evaluate: On the one hand, his Diaghilev is driven, obsessive, and even at times morbid. The character visibly feels strongly about his work and his lovers, which for him are one and the same. On the other hand, perhaps too strong—his is a very zestful, almost Nathan Lane-ish Diaghilev at times, and whether he should dial it back depends on whether one considers this to be an acceptable interpretation of the character. If not, then the clowning in his tantrums is certainly at risk of overshadowing his depth.
NoëI Coward once said “I will accept anything in the theatre, provided it amuses or moves me.” Fire and Air by all means should move its audiences— but it falls flat. Despite its rapid pace, the play feels low-energy, a problem of “too much tell and no show.” Diaghilev’s relationships with his lovers are the lifeblood of his work, yet they feel like an afterthought. His moment of climax seemed equally unemotional. For all of Diaghilev's accomplishments, one couldn't feel that this portrayal was of the visionary impresario who revolutionized the arts forever, nor, for the most part, that he was driven by love.
Overall, Fire and Air needs to be, as all good CSC productions, more than the sum of its individually glittery parts. That said, it bursts with potential worthy of its title, and just a glimpse of it at this current stage of its development can still be interesting. As such, it comes recommended.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Aside from a few golden moments, Fire and Air is inert. It has only partly emerged into life, like a statue still half-stuck in the marble, or a faun forever frozen in place."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Miscast and misguided by director John Doyle, Hodge spends a lot of time sitting on a golden chair as the others look moonily on. The play is airless and soporific: Afternoon of a Yawn."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"You'll want to learn more about the legendary dance company Ballets Russes, its impresario Sergei Diaghilev and star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky after seeing Terrence McNally's new drama being given its world premiere at off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company. Not because Fire and Air is so good that it piques your curiosity, mind you, but rather because the play is so lifeless that the real story must certainly be more interesting. It's the sort of historical drama that makes one yearn for the vivid theatricality of a Wikipedia page."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...