Wit Review: Cynthia Nixon Breaks The Nixon Rule
The Nixon Rule is named after Cynthia Nixon, who is starring as a literature professor dying of cancer in the Broadway debut of “Wit” 13 years after it opened Off-Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize. Best-known as Miranda in “Sex and the City,” but a Broadway veteran since the age of 14, Nixon was a freshman at Barnard when she appeared simultaneously on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” and David Rabe’s “Hurly Burly,” performing in the first act of one, then hustling the two blocks to play a completely different character in the second act of the second play. Too grueling, the actors union ruled shortly afterward, and banned the practice.
Nixon almost seems to break the Nixon Rule in her performance in “Wit,” her first Broadway role after her Tony-winning performance in “Rabbit Hole” six years ago. In the first half of “Wit,” she is Dr. Vivian Bearing, leading expert in the metaphysical poet John Donne, most popularly known as the author of “Death Be Not Proud,” surely not a coincidence. By the end of the play, she is in effect a different character, little more than a woman who is dying — stripped of wit, of complexity, of basic comforts. It is for the scenes in the last half – unsentimental, clever, upsetting, humorous, touching — that this production of “Wit” is worth seeing.
Those of us lucky enough to have seen Kathleen Chalfant originate the role Off-Broadway are at a disadvantage in appreciating the first half of Nixon’s performance. Chalfant played Dr. Bearing as a forceful woman of formidable intelligence, with an eye toward the world’s – and her own – absurdities. Nixon’s performance begins not so much in the portrayal of a character as in the presentation of a concept. She is the m.c. of her life, making a kind of meta mockery of theatrical convention. The lines are there for this interpretation — ”I was dismayed to discover that the play would contain elements of humor,” she says in the opening monologue, facing the audience in baseball cap and hospital dressing gown, and holding onto an I.V. drip. “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.” But these lines were more engaging when delivered drily in self-mockery by a believable character, rather than archly like a carnival barker.
Even when Nixon starts playing Dr. Bearing for real, her professor is harsh rather than formidable, as if insecure about her intellect. This seems unlikely, given what we know about her. In a lovely little flashback scene, Vivian, already an avid reader at age five, learns the meaning of “soporific” from her father:
Mr. Bearing: “Now use it in a sentence. What has a soporific effect on you?
Vivian: A soporific effect on me
Mr. Bearing: What makes you sleepy?
Mr. Bearing: Correct
These initial mistaken judgments in presenting the central character, however, are soon forgiven, in the face of a play that holds up surprisingly well – surprising given all the shows about disease that have popped up since Margaret Edson wrote her first (and so far only) play. Some of the most effective plays about disease of the last season,
Sharr White’s The Other Place with the compelling Laurie Metcalf and Adam Bock’s A Small Fire with a moving Michele Pawk, were vague about what disease the main characters had; the symptoms seemed to have been chosen for their metaphorical weight. By contrast, Edson, a public school teacher in Atlanta who once worked in the cancer ward of a hospital, creates a character with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. (“There is no stage 5,” Dr. Bearing says wryly.) The details have the weight of precision, and the feel of authenticity, even as they contrast with Santo Loquasto’s spare set and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, evocative rather than realistic.
The precision and authenticity are helped along by a flawless supporting cast of eight, employed variously as doctors and nurses, medical fellows and lab technicians. Greg Keller, for example, plays Dr. Jason Posner, a medical fellow who was once an undergraduate student of Dr. Bearing’s – he wanted to show the medical schools he was well-rounded – and learned the wrong lessons from her. With a different actor, this insensitive researcher could be almost the villain of the piece, as well as a cliche. Keller, in the very way he holds himself, his reluctance to make eye contact, and in his bursts of enthusiasm, makes clear that Jason (like Bearing) is a socially awkward person who has chosen to focus his attention on the one thing he does best, attempting to solve intellectual challenges.
The precision of details extends to the language. The playwright makes great use of Dr. Bearing’s life-long linguistic curiosity and diligence; her observations both on Dunne and on medical terminology feel fresh and insightful.
We see how Vivian could have lived her life in the two brief but affecting scenes with her mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford (played to great effect by Suzanne Bertish), first at the start of Vivian’s illustrious career, and then at the end of her life, when the professor is the last to visit her in the hospital, and the clever ironies of the encounter compete with its unforced pathos.
Whatever missteps of Cynthia Nixon’s early scenes, they are forgotten in the rush of scenes at the end, when she is sharing a laugh or a popsicle with her nurse (Carra Paterson), or weeping or screaming, or coming full circle to a childlike silence. Ultimately, the wit of Margaret Edson’s play curbs its potential for mawkishness, and the sympathy it provokes gives heft to the wit.
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By Margaret Edson
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; specialty staging consultant, J. David Brimmer;
Cast: Suzanne Bertish (E. M. Ashford), Michael Countryman (Harvey Kelekian/Mr. Bearing), Greg Keller (Jason Posner), Cynthia Nixon (Vivian Bearing), Carra Patterson (Susie Monahan) and Pun Bandhu, Jessica Dickey, Chiké Johnson and Zachary Spicer (Lab Technicians/Students/Fellows).
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
Wit is scheduled to run through March 11
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