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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The son of Andrew and grandson of N.C. Wyeth, Jamie was more rounded than they in his style and technique. He also had a particular affinity for animal portraiture. If not obsessed by Nureyev, he was fascinated and determined to capture his animal like presence as well as to observe him in performance and even more in life. It is this pursuit that playwright David Rush has deftly put on the dramatic stage with Nureyev's Eyes.
While the play does not put Wyeth's portraits and sketches of Nureyev on display, there are examples for viewing in the lobby and lounge of the George Street Playhouse. What is on display on stage is a keen and sensitive look at two distinctly different artistic disciplines as well as a compelling convergence of surprisingly complementary personalities. It's a sometimes doleful playoff that sparks with only an occasional sputter.
While no visual or performance artist rarely ever achieves the peak of his intentions, it is for the observer be it critic, author or scholar to assess the vision and the journey. And that's where the playwright both succeeds and stumbles a little if always valiantly.
Truth as well as fiction resides behind the canvas even as we become increasingly curious by the generally testy meetings and lengthy stretches of insinuating, riddle-infused dialogue between Nureyev (a superb Bill Dawes) and Wyeth (a splendid William Connell). Neither actor, under the fine direction of Michael Mastro, appears concerned by the degree of impersonation. Both are commendably convincing, each with his own persuasive grip on his character's reality.
Dawes is handsome and muscular and taller than the 5'8" Nureyev, but he defines him with a credible Russian accent (sometimes a little hard to understand) and with the self-adoring postures and poses of a man determined to accentuate his eccentricities and minimize his insecurities. Though Dawes' credentials don't list dance, he does go for it in a thrilling improvisatory scene that I won't spoil with detail. At its best, his performance combines both the eccentricities as well as the exigencies of one in the spotlight.
Connell has the more difficult role as he essentially has to play straight man to Dawes's histrionic outbursts. But it is Connell who purposefully serves as the play's point of view character while also normalizing the often turbulent terrain. Wyeth also has a temper and fears to combat.
Contrasting personalities make an inviting dynamic. Capturing Nureyev's soul on canvas becomes as much a challenge for Wyeth as is Nureyev's unwillingness to have his dancer's body be imprisoned by it.
Despite the dramatic peaks and occasionally torpid valleys, it is always a interesting to follow the intellectual as well as emotional clues that draw these two artists together in an almost ritualistic dance of temperaments. The men first met at the home of Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet and a friend of the Wyeth family. "You are rude, annoying and not interesting," Nureyev says to Wyeth who has intentionally provoked Nureyev to initiate a conversation.
A terrific expressionistic unit setting by Alexis Distler serves various locations but primarily as a painter's studio filled with the essentials. It is contained within a spectacular frame of eye-filling bric-a-brac. However, it's too bad that Connell has the task to move about a large desk on wheels to denote a change of scene.
It's clear how preventing the many conversations and meetings over the years from becoming redundant was a task that the playwright worked hard to achieve with not yet perfect success. Wyeth's wife Phyllis, an invalid and Eric Bruhn, Nureyev's partner for twenty-five years impact the talks but are never seen in this two-person play. Though it's hard to know what is real or fake, honest or pretentious, but it really doesn't matter as long as we are held in suspense and become a witness to surprise. And that is how and why the play keeps us enthralled as it evolves from the expected into the exceptional.