It took more than a decade for "Wit," school teacher Margaret Edson's insightful medical drama, to make it to Broadway. But as demonstrated by Manhattan Theatre Club's elegant and intimate revival starring "Sex and the City's" Cynthia Nixon, "Wit" was well worth the wait.
The play, in which a stern 50-year-old poetry professor undergoes intensive chemotherapy for advanced ovarian cancer, was deemed too depressing for Broadway audiences when it premiered in 1998.
Nevertheless, it went on to have a long Off-Broadway run, win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and receive a faithful film adaptation starring Emma Thompson.
"Wit" offers an extraordinary character portrait of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a literary authority on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. She spends the bulk of the play speaking directly to the audience, as if it were a one-woman show, describing her highly demanding standards and lonely, friendless lifestyle.
She even dissects one of Donne's Holy Sonnets and flashes back to the past, playing herself as a young child and teenager.
In the present, Vivian sits and waits uneasily in a sterile hospital room, now bald and wearing a patient gown. Edson depicts the medical community as uninterested in Vivian as a person, seeing her mainly as a specimen and source of research. Ironically, one of her doctors happens to be a former student of hers.
Nixon deserves a lot of credit for taking on such an unglamorous role. Unlike Kathleen Chalfant, who played Vivian in the original production, Nixon is more sensitive than imposing. She nails the play's humor and captures Vivian's journey, which ends with her finally breaking down emotionally when she is no longer able to hide behind her "wit."
At the very end, Nixon takes off her gown and appears completely nude for several seconds before the lights fade. While this has always been part of the play, it comes off here as unnecessary and awkward.
If you go: "Wit" plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 11. 261 W. 47th St., 212-581-1212, mtc-nyc.org.