Margaret Edson’s Wit (Friedman Theatre) is a handsomely structured, articulately written script; Cynthia Nixon is a fine, skillful, engaging actress. Both are well worth admiring in Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Edson’s 1995 work, directed by Lynne Meadow. Admiration, however, is where my feeling for both the writer’s artistry and the actress’s commitment stopped, though dozens around me, deeply moved, roared their enthusiasm. Something in both play and performance kept me at a chilly distance.
It seems an unlikely work to feel distant from. Crafting her drama with considerable care, Edson sets up its events with an austere precision of detail. She lets her heroine, a professor of 17th-century English literature named Vivian Bearing (Nixon), communicate directly with us but simultaneously conceives Dr. Bearing as a woman whose barbed approach to life cuts short any possibility of either cheap laughs or cheap sentiment. Since the professor is enduring the agony of exceptionally massive chemotherapy in an effort to wipe out her fourth-stage metastasized ovarian cancer, the merger of her sharp-edged tone and horrifying situation should arouse a growing sense of pity and terror.
The knifelike jokes that Dr. Bearing tosses are less laugh lines than I-dare-you-to-laugh lines; they should do anything but sweeten the deal for spectators. Her professorial hardheadedness, meantime, bars sentiment entirely. Only in the 100-minute work’s last quarter does Dr. Bearing’s pain mount sufficiently to let her author allow her a scream or a whimper of fear.
When Kathleen Chalfant performed the role in New York in 1998, empathizing with the pain underlying the hard-nosed attitude seemed no problem. Chalfant made the pain vibrant, and every caustic one-liner another victory she scored in her palpable struggle with it. The deep-buried turmoil in her performance, too, made one overlook the synthetic feel in Edson’s conception of the role: a woman scholar so unyielding and so single-focused that she has no family, no friends, no outside interests; nothing except Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.”
In a much bigger house, in Meadow’s cleanly efficient, spacious production, Nixon’s task is harder. She faces it gamely and proficiently but seems always a smaller figure, never conveying the full weight of Dr. Bearing’s agony. The honor and exactitude in Nixon’s work never keep the quips from seeming more than easements for audience discomfort, never fill the space in the role that Edson has left blank. That Wit works on many audience members, even so, tells you that both author and actress have achieved incredibly much on the way to not enough.