Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 26, 2012
Wit by Margaret Edson. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Cast: Pun Bandhu, Suzanne Bertish, Michael Countryman, Jessica Dickey, Chiké Johnson, Greg Keller, Cynthia Nixon, Carra Patterson, Zachary Spicer.
That, alas, is the fate that befalls Lynne Meadow’s new mounting for Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman, the show's Broadway premiere. Though carefully structured, capably executed, and generally well acted by a cast led by Cynthia Nixon, it never quite achieves the transcendental synthesis necessary to make you absorb how and why university professor Vivian Bearing is, despite outward appearances, an integral part of the emotional world she’s so long shunned. You approach the proper endpoint intellectually, but are not given the information (or the compulsion) to progress the full distance. In a play like this, where what emerges from the writing is far more important (and affecting) than the writing itself, that’s a major issue.
In fairness, Vivian is an unusually tricky role. It requires the actress to play her at not only a near-constant emotional remove, but within that restriction to unlock the searing layers of feeling that exist within anyone so passionate. Its 1998 Off-Broadway originator, Kathleen Chalfant, reportedly blended the academic and emotional halves of the part with such uncommon facility that her performance is still spoken of in awed tones. (I didn’t see her do it, but having witnessed her in other roles it’s easy to believe.) Nixon, who’s been acclaimed on stage and screen alike for finding unusual life within women who otherwise flaunt their too-sturdy shells, seems, at least on paper, an ideal choice.
She is not quite that in practice. The problem isn't that Nixon plays Vivian as detached — it’s much of the point of her — but that she appears detached from Vivian. She doesn't convince you that this woman has previously come alive only when unraveling the puzzles hidden in Donne’s poems, but over the course of multiple weeks of intense chemotherapy is being forced to depend on others for her very life. How she brings certain key characters from the “outside” world into her own, such as her senior doctor (Michael Countryman), the young on-call physician Jason Posner (Greg Keller), and most importantly her lifeline of a nurse Susie Monahan (Carra Patterson), and sees how they contribute to her personal poetry, is where the heart of the play lies.
Nixon doesn’t form firm enough connections to let this happen. Part of the problem is the play itself, which is smart and decently constructed but theatrical only to a limited extent. (It is the one and only play that Edson, a public school teacher with history and literature degrees and hospital experience with both cancer and AIDS patients, has written.) Vivian both floats outside the action, commenting on it as she does, and melds into it to say and do more things from the inside. Finding the proper tone across both “existences” is a difficult balancing act, but Nixon lets a bit too much of Vivian's metatheatrical smugness affect her "real-world" behavior, which seldom lets her seem the one thing she must always be: genuine.
On the rare occasions that Nixon’s latent likability leaks through, you see how she should have tackled the part: by building it from the inside out rather than the outside in. When Vivian narrates flashbacks from key moments in her life, such as when as a girl at her father’s knee she learned to love the intricacies of language or in a montage of interactions with her students, Nixon comes alive, as if she’s actually playing a person rather than a dramatic construct. Embodying the quickly expanding wonder of a child, or the satisfaction of a grown-up seeing her charges test the boundaries of their own horizons, Nixon shows the precise places in which her Vivian actually lives. Had this been translated to the other parts of the role, Nixon’s work would be much more successful — if, perhaps, less traditional.
Meadow takes few chances with her stark, simple staging, and Santo Loquasto's set and Peter Kaczorowski's lights are similarly bare-bones in both concept and risk. But the other actors more "mundane" portrayals help center the production. Patterson depicts in Susie a warm blend of compassion and street smarts that makes her a believable foil for the difficult-to-pierce Vivian. Keller cuts a particularly young and unserious form as Dr. Posner, which is just right for the man who takes researching the vagaries of the body as seriously as his patient does the mind. Countryman projects a crisp but caring callousness as Vivian’s ultimate benefactor in the medical world, as does Suzanne Bertish, who plays her inspiring but no-nonsense mentor in the literary realm.
Again, however, it's the details — or lack thereof — that define this production. Vivian's obsessing over a semicolon or whether the word "death" should be capitalized, is vital to her; her ultimate decisions about their meaning when faced with far more mortal matters, must be vital to us. But when Nixon screams her conclusion, it's not — it's just words. Learning where words end and life begins is Vivian's greatest challenge, and it's not one that this Wit completely meets.