Catching David Cromer, the director of "Nikolai and the Others," on a rehearsal-room lunch break the other day, I began with a general question: "Does this play remind you of any other you've worked on?" His response was equally straightforward: "Every play I work on is different but all are the same. They are all made of an exploration of human behavior."
Having framed our discussion, we were free to get more specific. Cromer reminded me that his background is in performing as well as directing. "The first thing I cared about as an actor was Chekhov. And the first full-length play I directed when I was a student at Columbia College" - in Chicago - "was 'Three Sisters.'" The production was very well-received: "It was detailed and alive and conversational. " Cromer said that he seemed to have an intuitive sense that a Chekhov play was not primarily about plot but about internal relationships.
"The business of plays is to show us how people get through their day. In that sense, every play I've directed is a Chekhov play."
Cromer mentioned another play he directed that he's been thinking about as he stages "Nikolai": "Orson's Shadow," by Austin Pendleton. Produced initially in 2000 at Steppenwolf, in Chicago, and in 2005 off-Broadway, the story is set in 1960 in London, where Orson Welles is directing a production of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright.
"Like 'Nikolai,'" Cromer said, "'Orson's Shadow' is about outsized personalities. It is about having to sacrifice your personal life by giving yourself over to a life in art. About how doing this can hobble you and also enhance you."
Turning more specifically to "Nikolai," Cromer said that he knew very little about ballet before beginning this project. "I knew who Balanchine and Stravinsky were, and I knew about Nicholas Nabokov in relation to his cousin, Vladimir Nabokov." Cromer added: "You don't have to know anything about these people to understand and enjoy this play." Part of his job as a director, he continued, is to represent those in the audience who arrive with no knowledge of these real-life characters. "In that sense, not being an expert in Balanchine and Stravinsky is an advantage."
As for the challenges of putting together a play that includes not only those titans but 16 other characters as well, Cromer remarked, "It's labor-intensive. Richard [Nelson] and I joke that there are 18 separate plays to track, because there are 18 different people." Cromer continued: "But I was raised on large-cast shows, so that's not a problem." As for the demands of working at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, where "Nikolai" is being done, Cromer said, "I like the fullness of working on a thrust stage. You can work in three dimensions. People can face each other. That's all very appealing to me."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com