The sight of Cynthia Nixon, sheet-white and hooked up to a rolling I.V stand, red baseball cap covering her bald head, is so startling that it takes a few minutes to settle in and savor the rush of words tumbling from the stage.
Millions know her as the carrot-topped lawyer Miranda Hobbes from “Sex and the City.” Theatergoers have watched her grow from late childhood -- when she juggled two Broadway roles simultaneously -- into an actress for whom nuance came easily in shows as disparate as David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole” and Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique.”
None of these prepared us for her ferociously crunchy portrayal of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., in the revival of “Wit” on Broadway.
Dr. Bearing is dying. The outcome of Margaret Edson’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about one fierce academic’s showdown with Stage IV ovarian cancer, never is in doubt.
For her last battle Vivian is heavily armed with words. She is a literature professor and specialist in the sonnets of John Donne. She may wax angry about the disease sapping away her life. But that anger is piddling compared to the wrath she can summon against anyone who messes with the author of “Death Be Not Proud” (Sonnet 72).
And so we have a drama laced with humor, most of it acid and utterly devoted to the power of metaphor, simile, paradox -- and wit. Not the debased, bilious language the spills from most stages these day, but words that matter, that touch the soul.
What really gets Vivian’s ravaged blood boiling concerns the last line of Sonnet 72: “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” Vulgarians, she tells us, have replaced the comma with a semicolon and the period with an exclamation point.
“If you go in for this sort of thing,” she says, her voice curdled with derision, “I suggest you take up Shakespeare.”
It’s not just a throwaway line but part of a lucid and, for her, crucial argument about the difference between fashion and wit (some versions of the play give the title as “W;T”). It is literally what keeps Dr. Bearing alive through the gruesome and grueling trial of an experimental drug she undergoes.
She’s confined in a teaching hospital (Santo Loquasto’s germ-free set and Peter Kaczorowski’s sterile lighting are perfect).
One of the grimly clueless young interns attending her was a student in her notoriously rigorous class. “Wit,” Edson’s only play, bristles with black humor as Vivian deals not only with the debilitating drug, but with blockheaded doctors who are shocked when their subjects show human tendencies, gumming up their research protocols.
Nixon gives us a woman whose mind demands attention even as her body is inexorably failing. You hear urgency in the crackling tone of her voice and see it in the undimmed sparkle in her eyes. She never stops wrestling.
Though we know how this story will end, that’s not the same as how “Wit” ends. Director Lynne Meadow (who, like Nixon, is a cancer survivor) lets the final quiet moments and incandescent images play out with the grace and sensitivity that have accompanied each of the previous 100 minutes. They make Vivian Bearing memorably alive.
Through March 4 at the Manhattan Theatre Club/Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)