Another "Sex and the City" star has made her way to Broadway but she's brought along a different kind of cocktail.
Cynthia Nixon has a combination of the drugs Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin in her veins as she fights back ovarian cancer in a tight and powerful Manhattan Theatre Club production of "Wit," which opened Thursday at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The play about the final days of a scholar of John Donne's metaphysical poetry is making its Broadway premiere 13 years after it earned playwright Margaret Edson the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
It is a deceptive play – seemingly so simple yet layered with nuance and self-consciousness. "I've got less than two hours. Then: curtain," quips the scholar at the top of the piece in a typically – yes, witty – line.
The part of Professor Vivian Bearing is catnip for any serious actress – Emma Thompson and Judith Light have played her – and Nixon has scrubbed all glamour from her face and body to inhabit a woman who goes from detached observer of her own condition to one consumed by raw feeling, whimpering childlike in pain.
And yet Nixon has decided to play her character far too robotic at the beginning, perhaps to heighten her arc. The result is a more shocking payoff when Bearing finally succumbs, but it comes at the cost of initially emotionally connecting with her audience. For too many stretches here, Nixon is like a Vulcan, her character's humanity hidden behind the walls of her formidable mind.
Nixon on stage appears on stage bald from chemo and wears a baseball cap and two formless hospital gowns. It's a far cry from her "Sex and the City" comrade Kim Cattrall, who just finished her latest stint on Broadway in Noel Coward's frothy "Private Lives" while sipping Champagne in silky gowns.
The humor in Nixon's play is grim, grim, grim and Nixon – along with director Lynne Meadow, who are both cancer survivors – have wrung out every ounce in a 100-minute, intermission-less production. The production gets its biggest laughs for tweaking hospitals as inhuman factories, with the ubiquitous question to patients "How are you feeling today?" particularly mocked.
The role of a slightly dim but goodhearted nurse (played by Carra Patterson) seems ill-defined in this production. But two smaller roles are very well executed.
Greg Keller plays the brisk Dr. Jason Posner, a one-time student of the imperial Professor Bearing who is in many ways her medical soul mate. He, too, is unhappy dealing with humans, preferring to be hidden away in a research lab just as she hides behind wit.
"So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity," Bearing tells us in an aside.
Keller shows a lovely flash of awkwardness when he begins a pelvic exam of his old teacher and his speech about why the disease she battles is so interesting to him – "Cancer's the only thing I ever wanted," he thoughtlessly says – mimics his patient's detached rapture for her beloved poet, Donne.
The other memorable performance is from Suzanne Bertish, who pops up twice as E.M. Ashford, Bearing's mentor who encourages the younger woman to engage with life in a flashback scene and then tenderly reads to her as she dies in the play's most tear-jerking moment.
Meadow has handled the flashbacks and quick scene changes flawlessly. She has been aided by Santo Loquasto's simple yet effective set, which is really just an industrialized-colored wall that spins, allowing one scene to play out and then twist to present another on the reverse side.
In one flashback, a lecture about one of Donne's sonnets by a still-formidable Bearing armed with a pointer she smacks around to make her points is a glorious moment to see her in her full arrogant, passionate past, one made even more poignant when she is interrupted by a nurse requesting another medical test. Nixon shines here as she allows her irritability to come out.
Edson's writing grows in strength as the play builds and so does Nixon, whose stilted language at the beginning ("It is not very often that I do feel fine") gives way to the use of contractions, swears and slang. ("What's left to puke?" she asks.) Bearing learns to accept and then enjoy human touch. She licks a Popsicle then laughs at herself for being corny.
"Once I did the teaching, now I am taught," she says.
In a play about ultimately reconnecting with one's humanity, Nixon is almost too hard to watch at the end. A ball of pain, and a curdling cry, is all she seems. But she ultimately achieves the state that the playwright intended: grace.
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” offers a lucky — and brave — actress a complex, finely detailed role that’s as demanding as it is rewarding. When the play first opened off-Broadway, in 1998, Kathleen Chalfant more than took on Vivian Bearing, an English-lit professor dying of ovarian cancer. She owned that part.
In the play’s Broadway premiere, which opened last night, Cynthia Nixon is more of a renter.
A good one, mind you. Nixon takes care of the furniture. She’s respectful, reliable and committed, having shaved everything for the role. Under the direction of Manhattan Theatre Club boss Lynne Meadow, she embraces Vivian — or Dr. Bearing, as this very formal woman would no doubt prefer to be called.
But Nixon also has a certain solemn, brittle coldness — the humorous lines in this surprisingly funny play don’t always land — and keeps the audience at arm’s length. You admire her Vivian, but you don’t necessarily empathize with her.
“Wit,” Edson’s one and only play — she’s the Harper Lee of theater — follows Vivian as she battles advanced cancer and the “full-force” chemotherapy that’s almost worse than the disease.
“You must be very tough,” her oncologist, Dr. Kelekian (Michael Countryman), says about the treatment. “Do you think you can be very tough?”
“You needn’t worry,” Vivian replies flatly.
Though she spends the entire show in a hospital gown and a red baseball cap, looking vulnerable, Vivian narrates her final days with zero sentimentality — no upbeat, pink-ribbon-style empowerment for her. This is a woman with a finely tuned bulls - - t detector, and Nixon plays her briskly, almost curtly, as if Vivian had a case of Asperger’s syndrome.
A 17th-century authority, especially with regard to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Vivian can lose herself in the beauty of words, while at the same time being very literal. She brings the same uncompromising attention to punctuation and human beings. As a result, she’s socially isolated — her one visitor is her old university mentor, E.M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish, sterling in her two short scenes) — and only relates to a kind nurse, Susie (a warmly understated Carra Patterson).
An upside of not being absorbed by an emotionally overwhelming performance is that you can focus more on the play itself — and it turns out to be better than remembered. The way Edson gradually fills in the blanks of Vivian’s personality rings true, as is the scholar’s discovery of her own humanity. The parallel between Vivian and a dedicated but tone-deaf clinical fellow (Greg Keller) is also spot-on.
Through it all, Edson is never didactic, and spares us the obvious clichés about feeling being superior to thinking.
Until the end, Vivian finds comfort in stories and words, even if they’re not sophisticated poems. She’s never a patient or a victim, but an individual.
Cynthia Nixon’s gaze has its own grammar. Playing a terminally ill English professor in the inescapably moving new revival of Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Ms. Nixon seems to construct perfectly composed, illuminating and surprising thoughts with her sky-blue eyes — the kind of thoughts that if you saw them in print would make you stop and savor and reread.
It’s not that Vivian Bearing, Ms. Nixon’s character, doesn’t possess a sharp and eloquent tongue. She is, please note, an esteemed and intimidating scholar of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. But the eyes are what first hook and then hold you through this immaculately staged 100-minute journey through the final months of one woman’s life. And while the eyes are usually in agreement with the weighty, exquisitely arranged words Vivian speaks, they also hint at something more profound, which both eludes and informs her intelligence.
Though I was seated close to the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, where “Wit” opened on Thursday night, I have the feeling that Ms. Nixon’s gaze would read legibly in the farthest reaches of the balcony. This is a performance that is large and lucid and delicate at the same time, and it justifies Manhattan Theater Club’s decision to mount what is essentially a chamber piece on Broadway. As directed with a persuasive combination of showmanship and sensitivity by Lynne Meadow, this production magnifies the innate theatricality of Ms. Edson’s play without compromising the firm emotional truth at its center.
My previous experiences of “Wit” have been in more intimate settings: the small Off Broadway theater where it opened in New York in 1998, with Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian, and in front of my television screen, for the 2001 adaptation directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. Both allowed their leading actresses to create a sense of a private conversation with their audiences, as Vivian drolly annotated her rigorous and dehumanizing medical treatment for Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
Ms. Chalfant, a deep-voiced stage veteran of commanding reserve, and Ms. Thompson, an Oscar-winning British actress with a crisp air of forgiving irony, were both splendid in a role that fitted them more naturally than it does Ms. Nixon. Whether playing a bereaved suburban mother in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole” (for which she won the Tony) or the brittle lawyer on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Ms. Nixon has no difficulty conveying intelligence.
But her persona has always had a stinging, modern-woman freshness and air of spontaneous engagement that don’t quite jibe with more mannered roles. The only time she felt utterly false to me onstage was when she played the flamboyant, posturing schoolteacher of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” for the New Group. And I had qualms about her taking on the pedantic, poetry-steeped, solitary Vivian.
In the first moments of this production, Ms. Nixon threatens to fulfill my fears. Wearing only a hospital gown and a baseball cap to cover her shaved head, her Vivian has the strained, exaggerated delivery of someone consciously playing a part. But as she continues to speak, this artificial, slightly tinny quality matches how she is describing her situation.
As conceived by Ms. Edson, Vivian is the author, director and chief critic of this depiction of her life as a patient, with flashbacks to her life as a teacher. She offers withering asides on how her story is told: on its clichés and tidy reversals, ironies that feel so much more facile than those spun by Donne (1572-1631), the poet who wrote “Death Be Not Proud” (which she had previously regarded as a cerebral puzzle to be dissected). She is giving a consciously theatrical performance, because artifice is her best defense against the mortal pain and immortal darkness that await her.
Such archness is kind of reassuring, especially given Vivian’s gallows gauntness and pallor. It’s comforting in the way that seriously ill people are when they crack jokes to put visitors at ease. “I was dismayed to discover the play would contain elements of ... humor,” Vivian says in her prefatory address to the audience. And it’s true that this “Wit” is often broadly funny in a way I hadn’t remembered.
But wily craftswomen of the stage that they are, Ms. Nixon and Ms. Meadow are seducing us into feeling at ease with this “it’s only a play” business, the better to lure us into more uncomfortable territory. As “Wit” continues, it and Ms. Nixon’s performance cut closer and closer to the bone. And the emotional transparency I associate with this actress becomes more and more pronounced, revealing the unquantifiable terror as well as the skull beneath the skin.
This evolution is of a piece with how Ms. Edson, a public schoolteacher in Atlanta, has built “Wit,” her only play to date. The words and intellectual constructs to which Vivian has devoted her life grow increasingly insubstantial before the hard physical facts of her disease.
Ms. Edson doesn’t trivialize Vivian’s devotion to Donne’s poetry, which is quoted and analyzed in surprisingly accessible ways here. But in artfully paralleling Vivian’s literary research with the obsessive medical research of an abstracted young doctor (and former student of Vivian’s) who attends her (a very good Greg Keller), “Wit” gently reminds us of how the seemingly infinite mind divorces itself from the finiteness of the body that sustains it. The industry of thought gets us through life, until life abruptly makes it known that it is disposing of us. Then words — and charts and pictures and poses — fail.
Medical treatments of cancer have changed since “Wit” was written. So has the treatment of cancer as a subject of popular entertainment. Audiences familiar with current fare like the television series “The Big C” and the film “50/50” may be a little weary of the hospital archetypes who show up here: the inhuman doctors and the caring, of-the-people nurse with a human touch. But they are all given credible life by a cast that includes Michael Countryman, Carra Patterson (wonderfully unforced as that very nurse) and Suzanne Bertish (as Vivian’s academic mentor).
Some of the underscoring of themes here could be cut. By now “Wit” doesn’t need to draw its connections for us as explicitly as it does. But this fine production — designed with compelling cleanness by Santo Loquasto (set) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) — understands the artistic impact of stark simplicity. And it makes sure that nothing gets in the way of our aching awareness of a pair of glistening, intense blue eyes that are about to close forever.
When Cynthia Nixon last appeared on Broadway in 2006, she was cast as a woman reeling from the death of her 4-year-old son. The play, Rabbit Hole, earned a Pulitzer Prize for its witty, tender insights into an impossibly heart-wrenching subject, and Nixon received a Tony Award for her similarly smart, nuanced performance.
Wit (* * ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, also is a Pulitzer winner in which a female character grapples with mortality and loss — in this case, a literature professor who is dying from advanced ovarian cancer.
Unfortunately, the role of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., isn't quite as compelling a showcase for Nixon's considerable gifts.
To put it more bluntly, Wit isn't as convincing a play. First produced in 1995 — this new staging marks its Broadway premiere —Margaret Edson's one-act presents an argument for the limits of intellectual discipline.
Vivian, a middle-aged scholar revered for her expertise on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, has led an utterly controlled, solitary existence. Her most intense adult relationship, we glean, has been with her students, to whom she's remained a cold, uncompromising taskmaster.
Her disease, of course, forces Vivian to interact more, to reveal herself physically and emotionally to the various strangers who treat her in the hospital. The experiences are "degrading" and "maudlin," she tells us — ever the lecturer, Vivian narrates, and her asides steer the action — but little by little, she learns to be vulnerable and to accept the vulnerability of others. "Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness," she finally resolves.
No doubt Vivian's struggle to soften her perspective while retaining her dignity will still resonate with many women. But the severity of her isolation and her steady (if rocky) path to enlightenment seem a little contrived. Other characters, too, can come across less as real human beings than as vehicles for Edson's message. There's the brilliant but brusque young doctor who treats patients like lab rats, evoking Vivian's lack of empathy for her pupils; or conversely, the plain-spoken nurse who emerges as an angel of mercy.
If director Lynne Meadow does little to play down the obvious, forced aspects of Wit, she and the actors also mine the grace and gallows humor in Edson's work.
Suzanne Bertish brings grand style and great compassion to the part of Vivian's mentor, a commanding but sensitive academic seen in flashback and in a moving scene near the end. Greg Keller is appropriately oafish as the socially challenged physician, Carra Patterson warm and natural as the nurse.
The leading lady is a stark, sharp presence throughout. Her head shaved under a baseball cap, Nixon savors the sarcasm that is Vivian's first weapon of choice; she is brittle and can be wonderfully droll. As the character grows frailer and more open, the transition is authentic and affecting.
It may not be Nixon's finest hour (and 40 minutes) on the New York stage, but it's a joy to have her back.
After winning every award under the sun, including the 1999 Pulitzer, and receiving hundreds of productions in dozens of languages, "Wit" has finally made it to Broadway. The correction of this oversight comes too late, alas, to recapture Kathleen Chalfant's phenomenal star turn in the original production. Nonetheless, Manhattan Theater Club's revival of Margaret Edson's metaphysical hospital drama registers the power of its emotions and features a sensitive performance from Cynthia Nixon as a brilliant but unfeeling academic who discovers her humanity when she's dying of cancer.
Edson, an elementary schoolteacher who never wrote another play after penning this extraordinary work, makes Dr. Vivian Bearing (Nixon) pay big-time for the crime of loving literary scholarship more than she cared about her students.
In a series of meticulously well-built flashback scenes set at an unidentified university, Vivian is seen at various stages of her career studying and teaching the work of John Donne, the most esteemed and abstruse of 17th century Metaphysical poets. "Nothing but a breath -- a comma -- separates life from life everlasting," she learns from her academic mentor, played with intellectual gusto by Suzanne Bertish.
This morbid expertise in the metaphysics of life and death should be a big help, Vivian wryly observes, when she learns that she is in the final stage of metastatic ovarian cancer and begins experimental treatment at a research hospital.
As hard as she tries, Nixon doesn't get the raw pain -- or the sheer fury -- behind Vivian's savagely ironic wit. Intellectual sarcasm is simply not the forte of this likable thesp, and she's not at her best in these early slash-and-burn scenes when Vivian is desperately drawing on the strength of her towering intellect to see her through the non-poetic realities of her oncoming death.
But as the treatments intensify, causing Vivian's indomitable will to weaken and her formidable defenses to crack, Nixon grabs the role with both hands, restoring Vivan's dignity and giving her the strength to die.
Edson once worked in the cancer and AIDS wards of a research hospital, so there's a grim sense of reality to the hospital scenes. Santo Loquasto's abstract set pieces assemble and reassemble themselves with efficient fluidity through accelerated scene changes timed to the breathless pace set by helmer Lynne Meadow.
In this dehumanizing setting, Vivian sheds her identity and becomes objectified as experimental material -- a lab rat to doctors who have lost sight of their research subjects as human beings. Only a sympathetic nurse (played with delicacy by Carra Patterson) sees the test subject in the hospital gown as a human being.
Edson's humanistic thesis has made "Wit" a popular teaching tool in medical ethics. But the scribe's broader point is that academic scholarship can be just as heartless as experimental medicine, so each crisply written scene draws some parallel between purely analytic medical protocols and the equally cold-blooded academic devotion to pure form. Nixon's time comes when the teaching points have all been made and Vivian is allowed to recover her lost humanity. Head shaven, haunted eyes staring out from under a jaunty red baseball cap, the thesp navigates Vivian through the final stages of her life with eloquent compassion. Her finest moment arrives when Vivian finally acknowledges the limitations of her intellect -- "I thought being extremely smart would take care of it," she says, "but I've been found out" -- and learns how to suffer.