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Off-Broadway Review—Terrence McNally’s “Fire and Air”

Fire and Air

Written by Terrence McNally

Directed and designed by John Doyle

Performances through February 25, 2018


Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge and Marin Mazzie in Fire and Air (photo: Joan Marcus)

One of Terrence McNally’s most popular plays, Master Class, had opera’s great diva Maria Callas at its center. Now McNally turns to ballet for Fire and Air, about fabled Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, who formed the groundbreaking troupe Ballets Russes in the early 20th century, and his volatile personal and professional relationships, including those with his favorite dancers: Vaslav Nijinsky, his first muse and erstwhile lover, and Léonide Massine, who took over after Nijinsky’s spot after he ran off and got married.


McNally’s play mainly chronicles Diaghilev’s time in Paris, when he took the dance world by storm with his stagings of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s historic The Rite of Spring—which caused a riot at its 1913 premiere. There are also glimpses of Diaghilev’s life away from stage rehearsals, as he alternately relies on and pushes away his oldest friend/cousin/first lover Dima, childhood nanny Dunya—who, improbably, is still taking care of him—and a Russian countess, Misia, whose husband finances Diaghilev’s art.


McNally, who has done his research, combines factual detail with imaginative flights of fancy. But Fire and Air (a nicely evocative title, from Diaghilev’s self-description) ends up an unsatisfying jumble of biography and fictional re-imaging; John Doyle’s typically stripped-down production (consisting of a few chairs and two large mirrors) cleverly visualizes these scenes of an artist’s life from, as it were, different angles.


As the dancers, James Cusati-Moyer (Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Massine) are lithe and athletic, their toned bodies speaking more eloquently than their acting. The cast’s veterans are Marsha Mason (an amusingly doddering Dunya), Marin Mazzie (a crisply elegant Misia) and John Glover (a believably Russian Dima).


As Diaghilev, British actor Douglas Hodge gives a broad but good-humored portrayal that at times reminded me, unaccountably, of both Nathan Lane and Dom DeLuise. But Hodge does make Diaghilev relatable as more than a self-pitying genius, which gives Fire and Air its intermittent vigor. 


Fire and Air

Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

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