Actors must have intelligence, and not just because memorizing lines can be challenging. Some plays require an added awareness, and Nikolai and the Others is one of them. Such awareness was on impressive display the other evening, as Anne Cattaneo, LCT's dramaturg, facilitated a platform event in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The actors who answered questions from Cattaneo and the crowd - Stephen Kunken, Michael Cerveris, Blair Brown, and John Glover - had varying degrees of awareness of their real-life characters before they began the project, but all have absorbed a tremendous amount since early March, when rehearsals began.
Glover, for example, confessed that he knew "diddley-squat" about Igor Stravinsky, his assignment, before the play began. "I knew Igor was a composer," he said. At the opposite end of awareness was Cerveris. He mentioned that his sister, Marisa Cerveris, was among the last group of ballerinas chosen by Balanchine, whom Cerveris plays, and the actor had an occasion to observe the master choreographer in a rehearsal room. (For further details of this, see my previous blog entry, Michael Cerveris on Playing Balanchine.)
Kunken, who said that doing the play with 17 other actors is like "tuning all of our frequencies to the same station," portrays composer Nicolas Nabokov. Like Cerveris, he detailed his research for the role in one of my previous blog entries. To the Beaumont-lobby crowd, he said that at this point he has forgotten "about 95 percent" of what he learned about Nabokov. Once the information is digested, the actor continued, what matters is the performance.
Brown may be the champion researcher among the Beaumont quartet. For a full dose of her knowledge about Vera Stravinsky, whom she portrays, read her interview in the current Lincoln Center Review. In fact, Brown is so knowledgeable about the characters' biographies that she has become something of a resource person among the ensemble. It was evident at the platform event, however, that research is not her only suit. Humor abounds as well. She relished telling the lobby group about the night an audience member at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, where "Nikolai" is performed, very audibly commented on the first scene.
In that sequence, the serving of a meal outdoors is being readied. Characters are laying plates and cutlery. According to Brown, the patron commented, "You'd think they would have set the table before it began!" Commenting on the method here of Richard Nelson, the author of "Nikolai," in which what counts is less heavy plotting than the observation of artists living life, Brown added, "But setting the table is the play."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.
Editor's Note: An audio transcript of the Platform Talk is available here.