BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
The winner of the Pulitzer, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and virtually every prize given for playwriting when it premiered off-Broadway during the 1998-99 season, Margaret Edson’s “Wit” remains an exceptional drama.
“Wit” also is one very tricky play to stage. Manhattan Theatre Club’s capable Broadway production that stars Cynthia Nixon and opened on Thursday does not quite get it right.
Edson’s story regards Vivian Bearing, an authority on 17th-century death-be-not-proud poet John Donne. A brilliant, rigorous and aloof individual, Vivian has been stricken with late-stage ovarian cancer. She endures debilitating experimental chemotherapy, but eventually succumbs to the disease.
That’s no spoiler. Speaking directly to viewers, which Vivian does throughout the 100-minute drama, she notes in the opening scene, “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.”
Written with insight and dark humor, “Wit” keeps a tight lid on the potential pathos/bathos of Vivian’s situation as the doctors address her failing condition much in the same clinical way that we see how she dissected Donne’s words. As the ever-cerebral Vivian endures her treatment and faces up to mortality, she eventually realizes that simple compassion in others is more important than intellectual prowess.
The ironic, unsentimental Vivian is very coolly rendered by Nixon, who wears a hospital gown and a red cap that makes her appear vulnerable. Her clear voice and all-seeing blue eyes always command our attention, but Nixon perhaps makes Vivian altogether too frosty an individual for viewers to really like her all that much even when her rigid detachment gradually melts with suffering.
If Nixon’s ultra-formal communication with the audience seems too chilly, her interactions with the other characters possess more of a natural give and take.
A boyish Greg Keller convinces as a former student of Vivian’s who is totally preoccupied with his work as a cancer researcher. Carra Patterson gives an easy, understated performance as a young nurse who helps Vivian get through her ordeal. The husky-voiced Suzanne Bertish offers solid support as Vivian’s kindly academic mentor in two key scenes.
The scale of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater may be too large for the subtle, relatively intimate “Wit” to resonate completely and Santo Loquasto’s white-and-black sets look excessively severe, but director Lynne Meadow’s proficient staging gives the drama a nice fluency. “Wit” might actually function better at MTC’s off-Broadway space at New York City Center, but even so, it’s great to see this fine play once again.
“Wit” continues through March 11 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.