Classic-Hollywood filmmaker John Ford once said that it is the job of a director to "create moments." A movie - or a play or a book - needs to have at least one of them, and ideally several. Nikolai and the Others, which concludes its run on Sunday the 16th, has many. Among those that have remained indelible for me throughout its engagement, perhaps none carved a deeper impression than that involving music in the first scene.
The characters have gathered on a farm near Westport, Connecticut, to fete the frail painter and set designer Sergey Sudeikin. In the middle of a sprawling lunch, held outdoors, George Balanchine bids Kolya Sudeikin, Sergey's nephew, to go into the house. He puts on a record: Sergei Taneyev's choral piece, "Dawn." In his script, playwright Richard Nelson describes the composition: "Written at the turn of the century, it is a moving and deeply spiritual piece for male and female chorus."
Balanchine means to have "Dawn" as background music. But it claims more and more of everyone's attention. Finally, Sergey, who has been telling stories, shuffles into the house and turns the record player way up. Nelson provides the following note: "As the music reaches its thrilling and moving conclusion, all are still, listening, deeply moved by all they have lost."
I can't say I find "Dawn" itself to be terribly affecting. Perhaps it's because I'm not Russian, or perhaps it's because there are reasons why Taneyev, who was born in 1856 to a family of Russian nobles and died in 1915, comes down to us less as a first-rate composer in his own right than, among other things, as the sounding board for an undeniably great one: his friend Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
What I do find affecting is the way that the "Nikolai" actors listen to "Dawn." Most actors spend the majority of their time onstage in the act of listening, but it is listening to another human speak, not to a musical recording play. You can tell that all of the actors enjoy having this rather novel assignment. Maybe they appreciate having a minute to collect their thoughts as actors and recollect what they have lost as Russians. Maybe they are secretly thinking about how, that morning, they forgot to pick up their dry cleaning. Or maybe they are, as the script says, not only portraying characters moved by the music but are, as human beings, moved by it themselves.
Whatever the reason, the music-listening moment reminds us that not only the play's personalities but the play's actors are a community of art-loving people capable of being moved communally - which is also an apt description of the audience in a theater.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.