×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Wit

After winning every award under the sun, including the 1999 Pulitzer, and receiving hundreds of productions in dozens of languages, "Wit" has finally made it to Broadway.

With:
Vivian Bearing, PhD. - Cynthia Nixon
Harvey Kelekian, M.D., Mr. Bearing - Michael Countryman
E.M. Ashford, D. Phil. - Suzanne Bertish
Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N. - Carra Patterson
Jason Posner, M.D. - Greg Keller

After winning every award under the sun, including the 1999 Pulitzer, and receiving hundreds of productions in dozens of languages, “Wit” has finally made it to Broadway. The correction of this oversight comes too late, alas, to recapture Kathleen Chalfant’s phenomenal star turn in the original production. Nonetheless, Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of Margaret Edson’s metaphysical hospital drama registers the power of its emotions and features a sensitive performance from Cynthia Nixon as a brilliant but unfeeling academic who discovers her humanity when she’s dying of cancer.

Edson, an elementary schoolteacher who never wrote another play after penning this extraordinary work, makes Dr. Vivian Bearing (Nixon) pay big-time for the crime of loving literary scholarship more than she cared about her students.

In a series of meticulously well-built flashback scenes set at an unidentified university, Vivian is seen at various stages of her career studying and teaching the work of John Donne, the most esteemed and abstruse of 17th century Metaphysical poets. “Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting,” she learns from her academic mentor, played with intellectual gusto by Suzanne Bertish.

This morbid expertise in the metaphysics of life and death should be a big help, Vivian wryly observes, when she learns that she is in the final stage of metastatic ovarian cancer and begins experimental treatment at a research hospital.

As hard as she tries, Nixon doesn’t get the raw pain — or the sheer fury — behind Vivian’s savagely ironic wit. Intellectual sarcasm is simply not the forte of this likable thesp, and she’s not at her best in these early slash-and-burn scenes when Vivian is desperately drawing on the strength of her towering intellect to see her through the non-poetic realities of her oncoming death.

But as the treatments intensify, causing Vivian’s indomitable will to weaken and her formidable defenses to crack, Nixon grabs the role with both hands, restoring Vivan’s dignity and giving her the strength to die.

Edson once worked in the cancer and AIDS wards of a research hospital, so there’s a grim sense of reality to the hospital scenes. Santo Loquasto’s abstract set pieces assemble and reassemble themselves with efficient fluidity through accelerated scene changes timed to the breathless pace set by helmer Lynne Meadow.

In this dehumanizing setting, Vivian sheds her identity and becomes objectified as experimental material — a lab rat to doctors who have lost sight of their research subjects as human beings. Only a sympathetic nurse (played with delicacy by Carra Patterson) sees the test subject in the hospital gown as a human being.

Edson’s humanistic thesis has made “Wit” a popular teaching tool in medical ethics. But the scribe’s broader point is that academic scholarship can be just as heartless as experimental medicine, so each crisply written scene draws some parallel between purely analytic medical protocols and the equally cold-blooded academic devotion to pure form. Nixon’s time comes when the teaching points have all been made and Vivian is allowed to recover her lost humanity. Head shaven, haunted eyes staring out from under a jaunty red baseball cap, the thesp navigates Vivian through the final stages of her life with eloquent compassion. Her finest moment arrives when Vivian finally acknowledges the limitations of her intellect — “I thought being extremely smart would take care of it,” she says, “but I’ve been found out” — and learns how to suffer.

Wit

Samuel J. Friedman Theater; 650 seats; $116 top

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in one act by Margaret Edson. Directed by Lynne Meadow.

Creative: Sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Jill BC Du Boff; special staging consultant, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Barclay Stiff. Opened Jan. 26, 2012. Reviewed Jan. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Vivian Bearing, PhD. - Cynthia Nixon
Harvey Kelekian, M.D., Mr. Bearing - Michael Countryman
E.M. Ashford, D. Phil. - Suzanne Bertish
Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N. - Carra Patterson
Jason Posner, M.D. - Greg KellerWith: Pun Bandhu, Jessica Dickey, Chike Johnson, Zachary Spicer.

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content