It’s hard to imagine a more daunting acting role.
In “Nureyev’s Eyes,” currently playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Bill Dawes has the task of portraying one of the most graceful figures of the 20th century: dancer Rudolf Nureyev. It’s not a dance performance, per se, but David Rush’s script does call for the Nureyev character to do a little dancing, from time to time, so if Dawes wasn’t up to the task, it would be jarring. But Dawes is.
He also does a good job at what might be an even more difficult task: Conveying what painter Jamie Wyeth (played by William Connell) found so fascinating about him: His eyes, of course (as the show’s title implies), and the imperious way he carried himself, and the way he always seemed to be holding something back. His many mysteries.
The beguiling “Nureyev’s Eyes,” first produced in 2014 — and directed here by the George Street Playhouse’s resident artistic director, Michael Mastro — is a two-person play about Nureyev and Wyeth, who did indeed paint acclaimed portraits of him. (Nureyev died in 1993; Wyeth is still alive.) Rush imagines what their private meetings, over 18 years, might have been like. The set, designed by Alexis Distler, is Wyeth’s studio — a slightly messy, slightly cluttered workspace, where you can imagine real work being done — though at times, as the older Wyeth remembers various encounters, the characters are actually in other locations, such as a backstage dressing room or an upscale New York apartment.
At first, the great Nureyev is uninterested in the prospect of posing for the eager Wyeth, and Wyeth has to resort to tricking him, to jumpstart the project. But over time, the two develop a bond, or at least as much of a bond as the wary Nureyev will allow himself to have.
So the play is about their friendship, though it’s also about the artistic process. Nureyev is impatient with Wyeth, who wants to sketch him endlessly while waiting for inspiration, instead of just beginning to paint. Wyeth is a bit of a prima donna too: “I don’t tell you how to dance, Mr. Nureyev. Please don’t presume to tell me how to paint!” he snaps at one point. (Indeed, it’s a bit of a problem in the play that Wyeth has to keep telling Nureyev what a great and ambitious painter he is: Would a real genius do that?)
As time goes on, the world-famous Russian defector and the Pennsylvania native from a famous family find themselves to be kindred spirits, in a way. For all their talent, they also feel the weight of the world on their shoulders: Nureyev wants to live up to the excellence of the great dancers and choreographers who preceded him, and Wyeth is intimidated by the accomplishments of his father, Andrew Wyeth, and grandfather, N.C. Wyeth. Real life intrudes when Nureyev fails to get a coveted job, and when his lover falls ill.
Time goes on, and the two men begin to understand each other, and relax in each other’s presence. “Nureyev’s Eyes” is ultimately a subtle dance, and not the kind that usually takes place onstage — just that kind that takes place every day, everywhere, when two very different people are drawn to each other, and find a way to make their unlikely friendship work.
“Nureyev’s Eyes” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Feb. 21; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org. An hour before the 8 p.m. Feb. 19 performance, the George Street Playhouse and American Repertory Ballet will co-present a free talk and Q&A session about Nureyev, featuring Mastro and Princeton Ballet School director Mary Pat Robertson.