When theater characters pontificate about (capital-M) Making (capital-A) Art, it is hard not to listen for the phony-baloney in their words.
When these characters are meant to be genuine artists from recent history, it's equally hard not to resent the presumption that expresses complex inner lives in high-flown sentimentality and dubious exclamations.
In "Nikolai and the Others," playwright Richard Nelson takes another step down the fiction/faction rabbit hole by plugging these real people into the structure and emotional ambiguity of a Chekhov play.
The result is ambitious and beautifully staged. But this is an overloaded, pretentious and muddled work by the fine author of such subtle plays as "Some Americans Abroad" and a series of timely plays about one family on the days of the 9/11 anniversary and major elections.
But now we are at a tastefully rustic farmhouse outside Westport, Conn., in Cold-War summer, 1948. (Knowing sets by Marsha Ginsberg, detail-perfect costumes by Jane Greenwood.) Fifteen Russian emigres -- including George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Koussevitsky, wives, ex-wives and friends -- have gathered to honor the dying set-designer Sergey Sudeikin.
As a bonus, after a talkative Russian meal and gossip on the porch, they will go to the barn to watch Balanchine and Stravinsky work on what became their formative neoclassic ballet, "Orpheus." Three Americans, who arrive after dinner, are the choreographer's newest wife, Maria Tallchief, with dance partner Nicholas Magallanes and a mysterious American who speaks Russian.
This is an enormous cast, even for the Lincoln Center Theater. And David Cromer creates a texture of overlapping yearnings and resentments that evokes Chekhovian humor and tragedy in rich, if sometimes confusing, strokes.
But Nelson tells us far too much and not nearly enough about these dislocated exiles and their conflicted concerns about being embraced for political reasons by their new country. Names are dropped that most theatergoers will not recognize. Career slights are revisited. Koussevitsky is played as a boor. Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine's lifelong patron, is bad-mouthed outrageously behind his back. Lest we not get the Chekhov context, Nelson keeps having characters remark on it. And lest we miss the Great Art message, a deathbed letter spells it out again.
But Alvin Epstein is astonishing -- yellow-pale but fierce -- as the dying artist. Michael Cerveris captures Balanchine's elegant, feline insouisance and, though John Glover is awfully tall to be Stravinsky, the spiky attitude comes through. Blair Brown, Kathryn Erbe and dancer Natalia Alonso are especially effective, as is Stephen Kunken as Nicolai Nabokov, frustrated composer and first-rate political fixer, and Alan Schmuckler, ace rehearsal pianist.
Extended ballet sequences have some authenticity, but not Balanchine's need to explain them. Nelson pretends these intellectuals need to be told the story of Orpheus, but, really, we know he is lecturing us.
WHAT "Nikolai and the Others"
WHERE Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
BOTTOM LINE Ambitious muddle