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‘Fire and Air’ review: An intriguing peek into the world of ballet

Marin Mazzie, Douglas Hodge and Marsha Mason in

Marin Mazzie, Douglas Hodge and Marsha Mason in a scene from "Fire and Air." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Fire and Air”

WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St.

INFO $50-$125, classicstage.org, 866-811-4111

BOTTOM LINE Terrence McNally’s intriguing exploration of a ballet legend.

The rarefied world of opera has been a constant in the plays of Terrence McNally, with the Tony-winning “Master Class” and “The Lisbon Traviata” the best of them.

Now the playwright has turned his attention to another high art. In the intriguing if at times perplexing “Fire and Air,” his new play just opened at Classic Stage as part of the company’s 50th anniversary season, he explores ballet, specifically the Ballets Russes and its legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

It’s a tortured world he invites us into, one in which Diaghilev struggles with demons both internal and external. His troubled love affair with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky is the source of most of the anguish, the intricate financial machinations of running a ballet company the rest.

John Doyle, the company’s artistic director, stages this docudrama with an impressive cast. Douglas Hodge (Tony winner for “La Cage aux Folles”) is maniacally intense as Diaghilev, and John Glover, a McNally regular, is Dima, Diaghilev’s witty but long-suffering cousin and former lover. Broadway stalwart Marin Mazzie is Misia, the beautiful doyenne of society who keeps the ballet company somewhat solvent, and four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason plays the loving nanny Dunya. Less known are the men playing the dancers. James Cusati-Moyer is a moody Nijinsky, giving clear indication of his eventual descent into mental illness. Jay Armstrong Johnson is the more flamboyant Leonide Massine, who takes Nijinsky’s place on the ballet stage and in Diaghilev’s bed.

Appropriately, the play is set in a ballet studio (barre and mirror along the back wall) but with a twist — Doyle, who doubled as designer, slants another (huge) mirror above it all, offering an interesting perspective on the action. But as the play frequently switches locale — a Russian theater, a hotel in Paris, the beach in Venice — lighting changes and sounds effects aren’t enough to make it clear where we are at any given moment, creating an overall sense of confusion.

Still, the play offers wonderful performances and an interesting peek into a little-known world. And for people who take their ballet seriously, this piece is a must, with its realistic exploration of a man who had so much influence on the arts of the 20th century. Without him, Doyle writes in program notes, “we would not have dance as we know it today.”

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