Wit is in good health for its age (fourteenish, an awkward time for a revival) and risk profile (star-driven, midwinter Manhattan Theatre Club production). Back in ’98, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning Off Broadway sensation — about a prickly, cerebral, somewhat inhumane humanities professor dying of advanced ovarian cancer in a teaching hospital — had Clinton-era Me in puddles, and I worried that a return engagement, blown up to Broadway proportions, might reveal a middlebrow, mono-metaphor, one-trick one-act. (The original also featured the kind of towering lead performance, from the great Kathleen Chalfant, that has a way of warping a play’s legacy, for good and ill.) I needn’t have worried. Wit is that real, rare thing: a good, small play — a monologue with a pit crew, really — that unfolds neatly, smartly, and satisfyingly within its own modest bounds. This is the best kind of mainstream storytelling, the kind that knows when to quit. (As did Edson: Still a schoolteacher, she’s never seen another show produced and, in interviews, doesn’t seem all that broken up about it.) Wit’s subject, as well as its object, is simplicity itself.
Of course, to Dr. Vivian Bearing (really, do names get any better than that, outside of the Charles Busch oeuvre?), simplicity is death. Or possibly, “Death” — she can’t decide whether to capitalize the D and make a big melodramatic fuss over it. John Donne, her personal lodestar and scholarly idée fixe, certainly wouldn’t have. Mr. Death-Be-Not-Proud, that sonnet-writing vanquisher of sticky human ick, would have cracked wise, or rather, cracked metaphysical — but he wouldn’t have cracked. His corpus is inviolate, and Vivian, trapped in a dying body, is determined to follow his example. Cynthia Nixon, as Bearing, is less of a natural lecturer than the plummy and imperious Chalfant (or Emma Thompson, who played the role in an HBO film version). Yet lecture she must, given the vastness of the Friedman’s stage. It isn’t her most comfortable mode, but she makes the discomfort work. (If Chalfant’s Vivian was a born pedagogue, Nixon’s, I think, would prefer to publish and skip her office hours.) The tension between crisp academic symposium and gooey hospital melodrama is what gives Wit its snap, and Nixon — an all-American actress more at home with agony and emotional immediacy than virtuoso flights of pedantry — clearly relishes the latter over the former. Her outer Bearing is more of a pose, a defensive posture; but her inner bearing is incandescent. Nixon, a cancer survivor herself, knows pain and panic on a personal level, and knows how vigorously they resist analysis. Her eyes are sirens, even when her voice is smooth and even as glass.
The other characters are little more than shadow puppets on Vivian’s ICU wall: the arrogant young research fellow (Greg Keller) who sees only data, not people; the heart-of-gold nurse (Carra Patterson). Everyone performs with grace, but they’re beside the point. This is a one-woman show. (Lynne Meadow’s bare-bones, workmanlike direction and the spare, sallowly lit set only emphasize this. I’m impressed that the play survives the slightly fumbled staging of the play’s final exclamation point.) Only Vivian’s mentor, Dr. Ashford (an excellent Suzanne Bertish), can engage her; their climactic scene, a quiet literary exegesis of The Runaway Bunny, remains a devastator, and one of the only sentimental visions of a Loving God I’ve enjoyed since puberty. Wit pits a mind against a body, then pits both against the Eternal, and somehow, we all win. This isn’t the finest production imaginable, yet it’s fine enough, indeed, and that, I think, is the mark of an enduring piece of writing.
Wit is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 11.