This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

3Feb/12

WIT

Cynthia Nixon gives a remarkably uplifting performance as a terminal cancer patient in Broadway premiere of WIT (photo by Joan Marcus)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Through March 11, $57-$121
witonbroadway.com

It might at first seem odd that a play about a stern forty-eight-year-old teacher obsessed with the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and dying of stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer is called Wit. But as it turns out, kindergarten teacher Margaret Edson’s only play, which was written in 1991, was first performed in 1995, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and is now making its Broadway debut in a marvelous Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is extremely funny, as well as being emotionally involving and exceedingly intelligent. Tony and Emmy winner Cynthia Nixon beautifully embodies Dr. Vivian Bearing, an English professor who has agreed to participate in an experimental cancer program at a university teaching hospital. The gaunt woman, wearing a hospital gown, a red baseball cap, and white socks, begins the play by directly addressing the audience, explaining that she is in fact a character in a play in which people should not necessarily expect a happy ending. For the next one hundred minutes, Bearing goes through several medical examinations — which harken back to tests she gave her classes — regularly interrupting the action to talk to the audience, mixing an appealing irony and sarcasm into her very serious condition, which she describes as “insidious cancer with pernicious side effects.” Bearing is a fascinating, complex character, whether debating the punctuation of Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” (“And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”) with her mentor, professor E. M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish), discussing her options with nurse Susie Monahan (Cara Patterson), or dealing with young clinical fellow Dr. Jason Posner (Greg Keller), who has a lot to learn about bedside manner. Nixon is magnificent as Bearing, a role previously played onstage by Kathleen Chalfant and in an HBO movie by Emma Thompson; for all her eccentricities, Bearing should not be a sympathetic character, but Nixon turns the lonely, snarky woman, who has no real friends or family, into a delightful character who is not afraid to look death in the face. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow guides the production with a steady, at times gleeful hand, with scenes cleverly changing via a revolving wall in the center of the stage. Nixon and Meadow, who are both breast cancer survivors, do a wonderful job of not allowing any overwrought melodrama to seep into Edson’s carefully composed, tightly constructed play, resulting in a mesmerizing exploration and even celebration of life, death, poetry, and the theater itself.

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