Theater review: Two very different creators meet in Nureyev's Eyes

David Rush's revealing play runs through this Sunday at American Stage.

Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, Rudolph Nureyev was the most famous male ballet dancer in the world. At the same time, Jamie Wyeth was a well-known, if not always well-considered realist artist, whose proclivities as a painter were more in line with those of his father Andrew and grandfather N.C. than with the late modernist and postmodernist approaches that dominated the art world of the time. David Rush’s Nureyev’s Eyes is a play about the several encounters of these two very different artists in the late 1970s, when Nureyev agreed, reluctantly it would seem, to be painted by Wyeth. In conjunction with the drama, an exhibit of Wyeth’s Nureyev paintings and sketches is currently taking place at St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts (through January 18). Theoretically, contact with the one show should lead us to the other, if for no other reason than to let us determine whether Rush imaginatively “got it right.”

Speaking only of the play here, I can testify that Nureyev’s Eyes is a mostly likable, somewhat stimulating two-hander that tells us more about Nureyev than about the man who painted him, and which offers some delightful surprises even as it follows an all-too-well-established formula.

You know the drill: two characters who meet in the first scene as distrustful strangers end up in the last as mutual admirers and maybe even best friends. If the inexorability of this pattern prevents these Eyes from too-brightly shining, the spectacle of a painter and a dancer trying to understand each other is still unfamiliar enough to keep us alert. After all, the differences are monumental: Nureyev is gay and Wyeth is straight, Nureyev is vain and Wyeth is self-deprecating, Nureyev is a critical sensation and Wyeth is a critical oddity... How many plays have you seen in which a brilliant, internationally acclaimed dancer imposes dance lessons on a clumsy painter? And when’s the last time that you heard an emotionally wounded would-be ballet master excoriate his rival Jerome Robbins as the choreographer of West Side Shit?

The more interesting of the two actors is Jed Peterson as Nureyev, who not only gets the best lines but also shows us just enough dancing — choreographed by Domenic Bisesti — to remind us of what we’re missing here in this Region of Few Ballet Companies. Peterson’s Nureyev is entirely in love with himself, has no doubts that he’s the best in the world at his art, and is more ready to attack Wyeth’s work than a roomful of Clement Greenbergs. This Nureyev has no need or desire to sit for Wyeth (and dance is about movement anyway, he hastens to remind the visual artist).

Then self-interest steps in: Nureyev learns that Wyeth is close friends with Lincoln Kirstein, head of the New York City Ballet, and just the man Nureyev needs to please if he’s to succeed George Balanchine as ballet master. I don’t think I’m spoiling the plot to say that Peterson’s finest moment occurs when he’s denied this promotion (to Peter Martins and Robbins), at which point he cries like a spoiled brat and reminds us that even the great have aspirations that, if quashed, can pain them just as severely as if they were unknowns aspiring to their first walk-on in summer stock. In this and all the other scenes, Peterson has the look and sound of the real Nureyev. It’s a wonderful performance.

As Wyeth, Hughston Walkinshaw is solid but lacking in resonance. This is the artist as boy-next-door, earnest and naïve and oh-so-American, stalking his exotic Russian prey with good intentions but with too much assurance that mystery can be had with nothing but patience and gumption. For all I know, this may be a clue to the real Wyeth; but as a dramatic character, it ceases to offer revelations after just a few minutes. Still, author Rush gives Wyeth some fine lines every so often (though I wish the riddle routine that the two men share had been much cut) and director Darin Anthony does a tiptop job of finding every tension Rush’s script allows. Jerid Fox’s minimalist set — a few pieces of furniture backed by nine empty picture frames — is just sufficient for the play’s purposes, but Saidah Ben-Judah’s costumes are first rate, especially for the showy Nureyev.

One of the best things about Nureyev’s Eyes is a sequence wherein the superstar theorizes about — and demonstrates — what moved the first caveman to dance. I wish that Wyeth too had a similar moment, so that the play might be more about the mysterious sources of the art impulse, that strange drive that we find in evidence at the caves of Altamira and at the MFA and the Ritz Theatre. But even with lesser ambitions, this drama is provocative and, to a degree, rewarding. That’ll have to be enough.