David Rush’s Nureyev’s Eyes, currently at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse, packs a lot of content into 90 uninterrupted minutes. The play exploring issues of art, friendship, jealousy, fear and more, between two men, fictional characters who are based on real people, one of whom is still alive and presumably still working.
The two characters are the legendary and flamboyant ballet dancer, Rudolph Nureyev, and the American artist, Jamie Wyeth, less flamboyant but, in his own way, equally legendary. The two met in 1977, when Wyeth, a gifted portrait painter, sought to paint Nureyev.
Nureyev had defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and, the script tell us, was haunted by the fear that the KGB still menaced him. However, at the time of his meeting with Wyeth, the son of painter Andrew Wyeth, Nureyev was at the height of his career.
How does a painting capture a dancer? This is one of the issues that comes up in the play. A painting is still while the essence of the dancer is motion. However, as Nureyev notes, the dance ends and is gone, while the painting lasts.
Despite the initially explosive response of the volatile Nureyev to Wyeth’s proposal for him to sit for a portrait, their relationship survived until the dancer’s 1993 death from AIDS. It produced a number of arresting paintings and drawings and what evolved into a close friendship.
The actual paintings are not shown on stage, and the action includes some cringe-worthy moments as the volcanic Russian tears and crumples what purport to be Wyeth sketches. However, the George Street team has placed reproductions of a few of the works on easels in the lobby, and the rest are of course available on the Internet.
Wyeth drew and painted Nureyev in a number of locations, all represented by a versatile stage set by Alexis Distler. Full of complex detail, it works well as an artist’s studio, a New York apartment and even a backstage dressing room, but falls a little short as an outdoor spot at Wyeth’s farm in Chadd’s Ford, Pa.
Since the play covers the 16-year span of their friendship, the characters evolve, and that evolution is handled with subtlety. Bill Dawes (above, left), whose printed biography does not mention dance training, nevertheless manages to move like a dancer. The production boasts choreography by Charlie Williams, which is minimal but handled nicely. Particularly well done is a moment when William Connel (below, left)l, as the lower-key Wyeth, tries some barre movements himself.
Telling a fictional story based on a real and years-long friendship between two people seems like making one’s way through a mine field. Is it true, for example, that Nureyev expected to be named director of New York City Ballet when George Balanchine retired? That of course never happened. Real people, both living and dead, are mentioned in the script, sometimes in not particularly flattering ways.
The performances by the two actors are outstanding. Special plaudits to Connell, who has the harder job of making the less-showy Wyeth as interesting as Dawes’ Nureyev. And director Michael Mastro, resident artistic director of the George Street, has done something extraordinary. In just an hour and a half, and with just two actors, he has created a world encapsulated on a stage set, which is engrossing and fascinating.
Nureyev’s Eyes will be performed at the George Street Playhouse through February 21. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732-246-7717 or visit www.gsponline.org online.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson