NEW YORK — 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.