The friendship that fuels “Nureyev’s Eyes” involves two very different icons of the art world.
Jamie Wyeth (Joe Bearor), third-generation American visual art royalty, is a realist painter of still images. He’s friendly, socially graceful, a little entitled and gregarious.
Rudolph Nureyev (Michael Grew), a ballet star in exile, is a force of movement. He’s laconic, mercurial, suspicious and broodingly charismatic.
And yet the two men bond — over art and “art madness” — in the Maine premiere of David Rush’s engaging comedic drama. Performed with nuanced physicality and emotion by Bearor and Grew and directed by James Noel Hoban, “Nureyev’s Eyes” is onstage now in a taut, affecting production at Good Theater.
The painter and the dancer don’t immediately hit it off, at a Manhattan party of dance and art luminaries. Wyeth is dying to paint Nureyev and suggests to him, a bit smarmily, why it’s a good idea. He even insults the dancer, interested to see what his eyes will do. Nureyev, for his part, looks at Wyeth disdainfully, deems him “uninteresting” and “the son of a painter,” and wanders off to seduce a young danseur away from the founder of New York City Ballet.
But before long, and intermittently over the next 19 years until his death in 1993, Nureyev poses as Wyeth sketches him. As they do, they bicker, laugh, drink, and make up riddles about themselves and each other (“How is Nureyev like Matryoshka?”). And they talk about the creative process; their critics, fathers, ambitions, and favorite dessert (apple pie with ice cream); the relative merits of self-portraits (Wyeth doesn’t want to stare at himself for five hours) and the dual inspiration and darkness behind their arts.
Good Theater’s set design (by Hoban) nicely divides the stage between Wyeth’s studio, laden with brushes and studies of his famous pigs and sheep, and Nureyev’s dressing room, with table, mirror, Pavlova posters and a barre and pointe shoes. This spatial mirroring of their creative realms helps to pose the men as counterparts and contrasts, and the actors’ physical performances make their differences fascinatingly tangible.
Bearor makes Wyeth loose and affable, a bit slouchy and floppy in his chinos and sports jackets, and in constant motion — gestures that are often throwaway movements, shrugs and little flourishes tossed this way or that. His face shuffles through an ongoing sequence of expressions, almost like a kind of emotional treading of water, or as if the artist is afraid to be still in himself. For all his amiable ease, there’s something of a child still in him, and he feels most comfortable moving a pencil over sketchpad as he talks.
In contrast, Grew’s Nureyev is poised, restrained, and deliberate, holding his body still for long stretches even when Wyeth isn’t drawing him. No one alive could have the physique of Nureyev, and Grew doesn’t pretend to, but he does superb physical work portraying the commanding grace of the dancer’s presence, in his form-embracing black pants and black leather jacket or glittery costume tunic (Michelle Handley’s excellent costuming). As he baits or affectionately teases the painter, Grew’s Nureyev is a master of the deadpan, the slight ironic curve of the lip, the hypnotically long gaze, the flicker of disdain or amusement in the eye.
These beautifully sustained physical portrayals make it all the more striking when emotion jostles the men. As Nureyev talks haltingly of his dying lover, also a dancer, he isolates his grief in his jaw and works it up and down, as if rocking himself. It’s a pleasure to watch Nureyev’s face soften into intimacy and even delight as the two men, in the country at Wyeth’s farm, dress up in costumes, drink and talk of their childhoods. And Wyeth is sometimes struck into stillness as he registers an insult or challenge from Nureyev, or when, later, holding the dancer’s mirror, he finally looks into his own eyes and holds the gaze.
The script (despite a flashback framing device that feels unnecessary and distracting) holds some lovely writing, with imagery that compellingly mingles image, sound and movement. In one monologue, Wyeth tells of a painting his grandfather made for the book “Treasure Island” that terrified him as a child, with its sense of a darkness coming physically after him. In another, Nureyev reminisces about sitting by the railroad tracks and reveling as the trains rushed by. Bearor and Grew perform these monologues with grace in motion and a subtle candor that brings us closer to the soul of each man.
The physical dimension of both artists’ lives is beautifully captured throughout “Nureyev’s Eyes,” and never more so than in a gorgeously performed sequence late in the play: Nureyev wants to show Wyeth the end of a work of choreography. But by now, the dancer is dying of AIDS and unable to stand. So Nureyev entwines his arms and body into Wyeth’s, half shaping the painter’s body to his own movements, half leaning on him for support.
It’s a wrenching, breathtaking symbol of how much entanglement there is in art — whether in inspiring it, creating it, sharing it, or, finally, sending it on.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.