It’s some feast that Terrence McNally has cooked up for Douglas Hodge, fulminating and relishing every minute as the tortured, torturing ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Fire and Air, a premiere at Classic Stage Company. McNally has always been fond of larger-than-life personalities gesticulating wildly and playing to the wings—think Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, It’s Only a Play. He has often toiled in the opera realm, addicted to its outsize theatricality and the strong feelings its fans and its creators harbor. With Fire and Air he switches to ballet, specifically the Ballets Russes on the eve of revolution—an art where those qualities also abound. The author is 79, he has written plays for more than half a century, and Fire and Air, happily, is vintage McNally.
You could accuse it, though, of being on the lopsided side—a showcase for one immense character surrounded by relatively timid, far less colorful sycophants, enablers and adversaries. Hodge flails his arms, dances around the rest of the cast, yells, sobs and makes sure he’s the center of attention at every moment. It’s a performance that may remind you in spots of John Barrymore, Nathan Lane (one has to wonder if McNally conceived it for him; in photos of Diaghilev, there’s even a resemblance), and Bette Davis and George Sanders in All About Eve. He talks about himself a lot, and everyone else talks about him a lot, too, most notably the evident love of his life, Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer). Why not? Diaghilev is by far the most interesting person onstage.
He quips. He makes pronouncements about art. He upbraids, he improvises wily escapes from creditors, and he blossoms and wilts at the hands of Nijinsky, for whom he engineers Firebird and L’après-midi d’un faune. As for Nijinsky, we don’t get to know him that well. Ambitious and temperamental and possibly going mad, he’s not easy to grasp. And Cusati-Moyer, while proficient, doesn’t communicate the genius or idiosyncrasy that would make Nijinsky mysterious and irresistible to Diaghilev. Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson), the cagey dancer who seeks to replace him onstage and in Diaghilev’s bed, has more of a dancer’s body and more personality, and seems more suited to the role.
Everyone else exists largely to comment on Diaghilev, or reminisce with him, or try to tame his unpredictable temper. It’s a distinguished company of major actors in comparatively minor roles: Dunya (Marsha Mason), his nursemaid from birth, protects him from adverse outside forces and daubs the boils that are slowly killing him. Dmitry (John Glover), the cousin who introduced him to the same-sex demimonde and was his lover decades ago, handles the Ballets Russes’ dwindling finances and wonders if he might rekindle their romance. And Misia (Marin Mazzie), a wily, seductive society lady who’s his best friend, offers a sympathetic ear and marries into money to help back the ballet. Wonderful actors all, and Mazzie, especially, is so poised and assured, you’d like to spend more time with her. But they’re more functionaries than individuals. And they’re so accepting of the fortysomething Diaghilev’s penchant for teenage boys—“He needs to be loved,” Misia says with a shrug—that it raises questions about how such relationships were cultivated and sustained at this forbidding moment in history. Did this milieu really possess such liberal attitudes? And how did they shut out the hate around them?
John Doyle directs, and he mostly does an uncharacteristically straightforward job, with a couple of question marks—why are characters so often sitting in repose upstage, and why is so much young-dancer flesh on display? Each actor gets a big moment, and Mason’s is particularly fine, a childhood memory that resonates and touches. They move elegantly across Doyle’s simple set, largely gilded chairs with two huge upstage mirrors, and Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes are quite striking, especially the imaginative ballet outfits. So is Jane Cox’s lighting, especially when bathing the stage in the yellow afternoon light of the Mediterranean.
McNally’s customary wit and consummate craftsmanship—give them a big first-act curtain revelation, provide some take-home lines (“God in his infinite wisdom created tights!”), end on a memorable image—are on ample display. But Fire and Air, when not philosophizing about the creation of art, name-dropping (Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan, Richard Strauss), or serving up juicy backstage intrigue, seems to exist mainly to let its Diaghilev take center stage and dazzle us. Fortunately, Douglas Hodge is well up to that.
The Classic Stage Company production of Fire and Air runs through Feb. 25 at CSC, 136 E. 13th St. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are available by visiting classicstage.org.