David Rush’s play Nureyev’s Eyes takes us to the 1970s, when two of America’s greatest artists – Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian-born dancer, and Jamie Wyeth, the Wilmington-born painter – forged an unlikely bond. Wyeth wanted to paint portraits of the ballet star, while Nureyev wanted to control how he was portrayed. Wyeth was self-effacing and reserved; Nureyev was egotistical and given to temper tantrums.
Rush’s play provides some insights into the creative process, as well as some glimpses of the two men’s personalities. Nureyev, we are told, is obsessed with the KGB, which he thinks is still trailing him more than a decade after he defected to the West. He’s also consumed with jealousy over other ballet figures who, he fears, might be more famous and respected than he is. Wyeth, meanwhile, is aggravated that he’s not as famous an artist as his father or grandfather. And while he takes pains to be accommodating to his temperamental subject, he’s not above putting his foot down when he’s challenged. When Rudolph makes too many outrageous demands, easygoing Jamie responds with force: “I choose the pose, I choose the color… I don’t tell you how to dance, Mr. Nureyev – please don’t presume to tell me how to paint.”
Nureyev’s Eyes is a well-crafted show. It’s tasteful and edifying, with direction by Michael Mastro that never fails to sustain the audience’s interest. But there are very few surprises in Rush’s script. We see the two men argue, then bond, then challenge each other, then argue and bond all over again. We see them struggle to gain the upper hand, then realize that things will work out better if they cooperate. Nureyev’s Eyes is a good show, but it’s so formulaic at times that you may wonder if you’ve seen it before.
Fortunately, it’s helped greatly by two superb performances. Bill Dawes’ Nureyev is a mountain of ego and arrogance, looking on Wyeth, and the whole world, with disdain. Even when he’s wearing dark black sunglasses, you can almost feel his eyes glaring at you.
William Connell plays Wyeth with a sunny earnestness that makes him immediately likable. Connell has the less showy role, but he never downplays Wyeth’s intelligence or his sincerity.
The show has received a handsome production at Delaware Theatre Company, where it has transferred after a run at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse. Alexis Distler’s authentic-looking set is an artist’s loft with high, smoky windows, shelves stacked with a lifetime’s worth of knickknacks, and a lived-in wooden floor splattered with paint. Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting uses a wide palette of styles, dipping effectively into near-darkness during the play’s opening and closing moments.
Esther Arroyo’s costumes reveal a lot about the characters; unlike Wyeth, Nureyev believes in making a statement through fashion, and he does so repeatedly. Scott Killian’s music, filled with piano and synthesized strings, has a lovely richness. And Christopher J. Bailey provides choreography for a few scenes, giving the audience a taste of what made Nureyev so special.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Note: Jed Peterson will be playing Nureyev March 16 – 20th.