There is bound to be contention, including displays of rage and passion, when two super egos meet, collide, and also collude in a rewarding and significant way. “I try to become the person I’m painting,” American painter Jamie Wyeth said in regard to his subjects — particularly to the hundreds of sketches he did of the Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev between 1977 and 1993, when Nureyev died of AIDS at the age of 55. The long relationship between the two was not romantic but professional, yet there is no denying Jamie’s impassioned attraction to Nureyev to fulfill his need for “personal involvement with an intuitive grasp of his subjects.”
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 in the lobby and lounge of the theater. What is 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 reside 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’ 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 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 that avoiding redundancy in the many conversations and meetings over the years 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 25 years, impact the talks but are never seen in this two-person play. Though it is hard to know what is real or fake, honest or pretentious, 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.
Nureyev’s Eyes, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 21. $25 to $63. 732-246-7717 or wwwGSPonline.org.