Joseph Bearor as Jamie Wyeth and Michael Grew as Rudolf Nureyev in “Nureyev’s Eyes” at Good Theater. Photo by Steve Underwood

Riddles and Russian nesting dolls figure prominently in the latest production from Portland’s Good Theater. References to these often-puzzling things add depth to the story of two artists looking for a path toward some sort of common understanding.

Based on actual events, David Rush’s play “Nureyev’s Eyes,” in its Maine premiere, imagines the relationship between ballet legend Rudolph Nureyev and painter Jamie Wyeth over a period of years beginning in the 1970s and ending with Nureyev’s death in 1993.

The relationship began when Wyeth used his connections with ballet bigwigs to convince the ambitious Nureyev to allow him to paint his portrait. It turns out both Wyeth and Nureyev had heavy “baggage” they carried because of illustrious predecessors. Both professionally needed something from the other. But it was a broader human need rather than mutual exploitation that eventually bonded them together in an unexpected and quite touching friendship.

The James Noel Hoban-directed production features only two performers. It allows for both knowing laughs and intense arguing on its way to creating a warmly intimate sense of how relationships can grow between seemingly quite different individuals.

The set, also designed by Hoban, features a backstage dressing room in one corner and a painting studio in the other, as well as panels at the back that receive (rather dim) projections to fit the moment. There are some minimal suggestions of the nuts and bolts of the characters’ creative processes, but most of the emphasis is on the human element during their sort of theatrical pas de deux.

The two gradually reveal vulnerabilities to each other over the course of the one hour and 50 minute play. Secret fears, oppressive family histories, personal tragedies and, in Nureyev’s case, the KGB, which he believes is ever in pursuit of him for defecting from the Soviet Union, are all a threat.


Joe Bearor plays Wyeth, the Maine connected artist with imposing artistic forebears in his grandfather N.C. Wyeth and father Andrew Wyeth. His character’s roots in the realist tradition of painting will be tested by the mischievous, temperamental, expressionist Nureyev.

Bearor initially gives his Wyeth more than a bit of nerdy jitters as Michael Grew’s Nureyev tries to set the ground rules for their work together. His Wyeth later shows some grit in reminding Nureyev, who is always affecting some sort of imperious pose, that the painting will ultimately belong to the artist. Nureyev schools him in the deeper truth of that fact.

In a passable Russian accent, Grew, who does not physically resemble the legendary ballet master, nonetheless becomes a black-clad performer who focuses his emotions to affectionately take on the task of loosening Wyeth’s fears, rooted in “dangerous” dreams, and point the artist toward a new understanding of what he should be trying to do in his art.

No easy answers are proffered in this well-acted and thought-provoking play. But it nonetheless engagingly conveys a sense of the mysteries of artistic collaboration and personal friendship.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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