Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., can remember the precise moment when she knew that words would be her life’s work. It is her fifth birthday and she begins to read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. She asks her father what “soporific” means, and then is delighted to see his definition realized in the illustration: “The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!” This is a particularly clever scene, since Vivian will go on to become a professor of seventeenth century poetry, with a specialization in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Now, with Stage IV metastatic cancer, she is once again seeing something she knows academically fulfilled in real life—Donne most famously wrote about death and dying. Furthermore, Donne’s most famous sonnet concludes with the line, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.” Vivian’s final encounters with language, then, are looped back to her first.
Margaret Edson’s Wit is a brilliant play, a satire of academia and the medical profession as well as a brutally honest depiction of death. And Dr. Vivian Bearing is one of modern drama’s most ferociously intelligent characters—the audience, as well as the rest of the cast, must struggle to keep up with her—and she therefore requires an actor who at least approaches being her equal. Unfortunately, Cynthia Nixon is not that actor. Though she should be praised for her effort—Vivian requires a shaved head, an emaciated figure, and at one point an almost fetal-like full-frontal nudity—she never quite convinces us that these are her insights, her experiences. Throughout Wit, Vivian acts through a series of flashbacks, and Ms. Nixon’s performance plays like she is relying on a series of stock characters: “The Professor,” “The Graduate Student,” “The Child.” These are quickly accessed improv game types, not Dr. Bearing at various stages in her life.
With a flat lead performance, the play quickly crumbles. In one scene, a student argues that John Donne hides behind his wit, uses it as a defense mechanism. This clearly extends to Vivian herself, and in order for her death to have power, we have to see that vulnerability behind her sharp dialogue and her biting put-downs; there should be a weakness in her eyes, even when she is at her best. With Ms. Nixon, it simply isn’t there. It is easy to hit the jokes (after quoting Shakespeare, she drily says the to audience, “I trust the name is familiar”) but they have no meaning without her suffering. There is a profound rage in Vivian, an anger that a lifetime spent dissecting the anxiety surrounding death proves useless when her time comes—but leaving this production, there is only the sense of having seen a witty but emotionally vacuous play.
Admittedly, all this seems a bit unfair to Ms. Nixon—she isn’t a bad actor, she simply isn’t a brilliant one. Emma Thompson, in Mike Nichols’ film, played the part with the right amount of agony. Save yourself $70 and rent the DVD.