Cynthia Nixon recently blossomed into radiant single motherhood as Miranda on “Sex and the City,” and now she is playing pregnant onstage. In this softer-edged comedy about a 40-year-old music teacher whose biological clock is booming in her ears, the willowy redhead with the wistful smile is expecting again, and the father could be any one of three men who play key roles in her character’s otherwise modest life. Never mind whodunit, a more pertinent question is whether Jacquelyn Reingold’s sweet, but rather precious, play has the stuff to survive without this lovely actress’s glowing presence.
Even as she dashes Lily with refreshing doses of self-awareness and wry humor, Nixon radiates sympathy for the hapless heroine, whose musician boyfriend has tossed her out of his house and checked himself into a funny farm where the mental exercises involve developing close attachments to pieces of furniture. (Although his character Matthew remains egregiously undeveloped, David Thornton gives definition to “mental wreck” whenever he makes an appearance, mumbling and stumbling and clutching a lawn chair for comfort.)
Left in the lurch, Lily finds herself floundering in a world that has suddenly lost its core of meaning. This gives Michael Lincoln his light cue to shower the walls with the random starbursts of a disordered and possibly hostile universe, while prompting from Nixon a dazed look of hurt and disbelief that has Lily’s friends dashing to the rescue.
As played by Mary B. Robinson’s sterling ensemble cast, these friends couldn’t be friendlier — or funnier. Lily’s best friend (in one of those beautifully blunt turns that Cecilia deWolf specializes in) tries to jolly her into a new relationship. Her suicidal father (Tom Mardirosian, in his best wounded-bear mode) thinks she should give Matthew another chance. An antic Evan Handler (another familiar face from “Sex and the City”), as a boisterous Icelandic artist whose life in Reykjavik is one big lunatic misadventure, just wants to distract his friend with hilarious videos. Lily is indeed blessed with this cheering squad.
But Lily doesn’t get what she really needs — a new sense of meaning and direction — until she meets a nerdy physicist named Frank (Jim Fyfe, a little nerdier than he needs to be). Though he seems to be a washout in bed, Frank turns Lily onto string theory, a kind of theory of everything that promises to connect all the free-floating mysteries of science and — as Lily profoundly hopes — of that messy business we call human life. Indeed, when Lily and Matthew finally have their sit-down, she is outraged to discover that he, too, has read physics. “Physics is mine,” she warns him. “You keep your crazy fucking head out of my physics.”
Although “String Fever” is no “Proof,” the science stuff works. (It had better work, since the show was commissioned by the Sloan Foundation as part of a project “to stimulate artists to create credible and compelling new theatrical works exploring the worlds of science and technology.”) But the play cheats on the emotional reality of the characters. For all the amusing chit-chat between Lily and her friends, real discussion stops just when they’re on the verge of revealing something significant about themselves and their need for the “strings” of human connections.
Too often, and in the most arbitrary manner, it’s because one character or another has a health problem. In the case of Matthew, it’s because the character never comes alive. Whatever the reason, the “strings” are tied up too neatly, without ever being stretched.