Although Balanchine and Stravinsky are the best-known figures in Nikolai and the Others, neither of them figures in Richard Nelson's title. That character is Nicolas Nabokov, also known as Nikolai or, to intimates, Nicky. Thus it seemed only appropriate that, for my first official actor interview, I spoke with the man who plays Nicky: Stephen Kunken.
"I didn't really know much about Nikolai," Kunken told me the other morning. "I knew of him in relation to his more famous cousin, Vladimir Nabokov. Nicky is the sort of guy who turns up in the footnotes of books about other artists." It isn't as if Nicky himself didn't have an eventful life. Kunken mentioned that Nicky's family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and that he studied in Paris, became a composer, had five wives and three sons, and lived in the United States for years furthering the work of other artists through various, often anti-Communist means.
"But when you find Nicky in footage about the late-40s period of the play," Kunken said, "it is usually in relationship to 'the others.' You'll be watching a documentary about Stravinsky, for example, and suddenly there's Nicky, having drinks with the composer."
Kunken, who grew up on Long Island and graduated from Juilliard's acting program, has portrayed other fascinating real-life characters onstage - David Halberstam in The Columnist, Jim Reston in Frost/Nixon, and Andy Fastow in Enron. (He received a Tony-award nomination for the last.) "I have played several characters who, like Nicky, were great observers of more famous figures. They've tended to be the ones who wrote the accounts of their periods." Kunken continued: "Nicky wrote two really wonderful books: 'Old Friends and New Music,' and 'Bagazh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan.' They are a kind of corrective to descriptions of him as simply an émigré, hard-core anti-Communist."
Through the eyes of some other observers, Kunken commented, Nicky may seem "less than heroic. But people don't villainize themselves; they rationalize their behavior. I think Nicky cared very much about the Cold War period. He was passionate about the ideals of capitalism and about how the United States was different from Soviet Russia, which had kicked him and his family out."
Families, Kunken observed, are made up not only of blood relatives but of those with common interests. "I was talking with Richard Nelson about howNikolai is at its core a family play. The family assembled is brought together by an interest in art. In a sense, Balanchine and Stravinsky are the more successful brothers. Nikolai is the brother who has to do the diligent work to assure that the others are supported." Kunken added: "In the play, Nicky is undergoing a crisis of identity. He is being reminded that he is not the genius brother. His skill set is not to write 'Firebird' but to walk through fire to help other artists to do great things."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.