For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that Wit, Margaret Edson’s cerebral, Pulitzer Prize-winning cancer play, is not in need of a major revival the likes of which it has been given by Manhattan Theatre Club. Between the legendary Off-Broadway run starring Kathleen Chalfant and the 2001 TV film starring Emma Thompson, the story of exacting poetry professor Dr. Vivian Baring and her epic battle with ovarian cancer has never left us. And let us put aside the fact that the experimental treatment Vivian undergoes is no longer is use, and that Showtime’s The Big C, starring Laura Linney, is a basically the same story only tweaked (and not as insistent on the power of John Donne). The major problem with this production of Wit is its misguided raison d’etre, star Cynthia Nixon.
Nixon, an accomplished stage actress who found unlikely fame as Miranda Hobbs on Sex and the City, has distinguished herself as an everywoman over the years. When she steps out of that comfort zone (as she did Off-Broadway in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 2006), the results are typically underwhelming—and certainly she does a disservice to Edson’s edgy, complicated Vivian.
Marching to the edge of the stage to greet the audience, Nixon immediately makes it clear that this Wit will be rocky going. Her concept of Vivian’s smug superiority, which we will watch slowly diminish over the course of her brutal rounds of chemotherapy, is to plaster a vague mid-Atlantic accent onto her carefully over-pronounced words. The effect is something like watching a high schooler tackle the role.
Nixon’s thin voice, which works well on television and in less stylized work, fails her and the play here. There’s never a sense of Vivian’s much-vaunted uncompromising; all we see of her here is a born show woman who is ill at ease listening to others. Even Vivian’s flashbacks to her classes find her acting out her lectures with aplomb, which director Lynne Meadow apparently doesn’t see as contradicting the crisp, controlled character the rest of the play describes.
The gaggle of supporting actors all run the gamut of stereotypes—particular in this production’s casting—from the kindly nurse to the unfeeling doctor, but Wit has always been about both the power of Donne and the too-late defrosting of Vivian (a process that begins almost immediately with Nixon in the role). Wit has never been a truly great play; Edson’s elaborate shell game with word play and Donne poetry disguised the more maudlin aspects of Vivian’s story, from the cuddle session over popsicles with her nurse to the mother figure who reads a dying Vivian to sleep with a childrens book. Wit has always hidden its soppy heart beneath a bushel of Holy Sonnets and the question of a comma or a semicolon. But without a more commanding actress in the hospital bed, that soppy heart starts to bleed all over Edson’s dry academic debates, and the result is a soggy mess. When Vivian staggers to her feet and defiantly reverts to the more melodramatic punctuation of “Death, be not proud,” the feeling isn’t that of a woman refusing to go gentle into that good night. With Nixon, it’s more like a dedicated grind trying one last time to prove her point. As Dorothy Parker once said, “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Consider this Wit just theatrical calisthenics.
Through March 11, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.),www.telecharge.com; $57–$116.
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