By Thom Geier
Updated May 07, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
Paul Kolnik

In his justly acclaimed Apple family plays (That Hopey Changey Thing, Sorry), depicting an extended family from New York’s Hudson Valley gathering (typically) at election time, Richard Nelson elevates the quotidian to the sublime: A free-ranging conversation while setting the dining-room table can reveal as much about the American political and societal psyche as the strains between relatives. But Nikolai and the Others, a new play running through June 6 at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a similar approach with more noteworthy historical figures falls glaringly short.

The setting is a rustic retreat in Westport, Conn., in 1948, where choreographer George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), composer Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), and other artistically inclined Russian émigrés are gathering mainly to work on the seminal ballet Orpheus. Curiously, Nelson’s central figure seems to be Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a nominal composer who’s mostly abandoned music to act as a facilitator, fundraiser, and consigliere for his artistic comrades — often deploying funds from the nascent CIA, which was very interested in keeping Russian intellectuals in the American fold and free from Soviet temptation.

There are hints of conflict that pop up in conversation — rivalries, jealousies, romantic dalliances — but they never rise to the level of dramatic conflict, let alone coalesce into anything resembling a plot. Put simply, too little happens to justify the hefty during 2 hour, 35 production running time.

Still, there’s a remarkable scene late in the first act in which Ballanchine is seen working with two dancers (Michael Rosen and Natalia Alonso), tweaking his choreography as he goes along. It recalls the dialogue-free sequence in John Logan’s Red in which Mark Rothko and his assistant furiously applied the undercoating to a giant canvas. But Logan’s play also provided a deeper understanding of the artist at work instead of merely providing a fleeting snapshot of the creative process amid a whole lot of tangential ephemera. C

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