Playwright Terrence McNally ventures into challenging territory in “Fire and Air,” in which he digs into evolving dance in Russia to dramatize homosexual longings mixed with the dynamics of ballet. The play, presented as part of the Classic Stage Company’s 50th anniversary year, centers on the emotional turmoil of renowned producer Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, who founded the Ballet Russes and brought change to the world of ballet in the early part of the 20th century.
Douglas Hodge plays Diaghlev to the hilt, with periodic outbursts of passion, both for the art of the dance and for his relationship with the superstar Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer), whom he showcases and loves. The drama pays verbal homage to the Nijinksy-choreographed-and-performed “The Afternoon of a Faun,” which in 1912 caused a stir in Paris. “Fire and Air,” a drama without the benefit of dance, recounts the split between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, who marries but still haunts the mind of the devastated impresario. Diaghilev’s lust then focuses on the sexy newcomer Léonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson), but the impresario, overweight and plagued by boils, is hardly a man of physical attraction.
In the current time when there is much discussion of relations between producers and their performers, it is pertinent to observe how Diaghilev’s passion for making new strides in ballet is interwoven with, as shown here, homosexual liaisons. Not that anything is forced. When applying to impress Diaghilev with his body and talent, Massine is all too willing to strip completely. “Not yet,” Diaghilev says, and the audience is made to feel the budding eroticism.
The subject matter is interesting whether or not one is informed about this era of dance history, and Hodge portrays Diaghilev charismatically, but often over the top. Directed by John Doyle, the staging is, as one might expect from him, intimate. But it is a stretch to make everything seem very Russian or Chekhov-like, and plunges into portrayal of imaginary thoughts are strained.
Other cast members include John Glover as Dmitry “Dima” Filosofov, who still harbors a love for Diaghilev stemming from an early affair; Marsha Mason as Dunya, the long-time retainer, who spends a lot of time knitting, and Marin Mazzie as Misia Sert, the chic patron. But the emphasis is primarily on Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Massine.
The overall result is a production that has its fascinating and informative moments, but also is ultimately overwrought and not very deep. At the CSC, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212-677-4210. Reviewed February 2, 2018.