Cynthia Nixon Graduates to Mom Roles

Special Features   Cynthia Nixon Graduates to Mom Roles Cynthia Nixon rekindles her penchant for stage motherhood with Distracted.
Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon Photo by Steven Sebring

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If she stays on track, Cynthia Nixon should hit all of The Ages of Man on stage. She's a Child of Theatre who has grown up right before our eyes. Now, at this slightly-left-of-midway point in her life, she plays the moms of kids almost as old as she was when she first burst on to the Broadway scene — as the bratty kid-sister of Blythe Danner's Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story at Lincoln Center. Cued by Virginia Weidler's movie performance, she made the brat brainy and sweet, prompting John Willis to give her one of his Theatre World Awards for Most Promising Newcomer to encourage her to stick around a while — and she has gripped the road like a Goodyear tire ever since.

One odd thing about her stage mothers: her offspring, so far, have never been seen.

Rabbit Hole, her Tony winner, opens with her in the laundry room methodically, almost ritualistically, folding a young boy's clothes. The boy, it gradually develops with quiet horror, has been struck down and killed by a teenage driver eight months before, and this is how we grieve. The play itself died a premature death at its limited run of 77 performances. "We were almost able to move it," remembers Nixon. "David Lindsay-Abaire won the Pulitzer for it, but he won it a year later. Had they given it to him that year, I think we would have been able to swing it and run a much longer run."

Cynthia Nixon in Rabbit Hole
photo by Joan Marcus

Motherhood strikes again Off-Broadway this spring with Lisa Loomer's Distracted, at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. This time her son is very much alive — unseen but heard, shrilly and stridently. She describes the plot: "I have a child who, I'm being told by his teachers, has attention deficit disorder, so I go around from teachers to doctors to psychologists to allergists to every kind of specialist to figure out, 'Well, does he have it?' and if he does have it, 'What are we going to do about it?' What happens is — before my character researches it and gets immersed in it — she starts to see it everywhere, and it's 'Do we all have attention deficit disorder?' 'Is it the modern condition with so much multitasking and so many channels and so many brands to buy on the shelf?'"

Cynthia Nixon in Distracted
photo by Joan Marcus

It's a kinky, kinetic piece of theatre, taken at an appropriate ADD-like clip. Think Marvin's Room, she advises: "It's a serious subject and a painful subject, but it deals with it oftentimes in a kind of heightened, farcical fashion." At times, she breaks the fourth wall to explain why she's keeping her kid under wraps. "I talk to the audience. And I say, 'I don't think you're really interested in seeing child actors onstage unless they're half-singing 'n' half-dancing, so I'm just going to keep him off-stage.'" Luckily, nobody threw any stage-blockage at her in her formative years — or at Sarah Jessica Parker. "She is one of the first people I worked with — a bunch of times when I was 11 or 12 — so however long that is. Let's see, how old am I? Forty-two, so it's going on 30 years."

Their "Sex and the City" series had a six-year HBO run and got crowned with prizes. "Sarah Jessica and I both won Emmys our very last shot at it. We had a great time. They'd say, 'We're going to make a little half-hour movie every week,' and they took such care with the lighting, the camera angles, certainly the clothes, the location."

Their feature-film sign-off last summer was a gender-splitting success. "I think there was such a strong male–female divide on it, really. Women were so enthused about it, and maybe the men wouldn't care, but I do think the men critics pounced on it."

Yes, a movie sequel is in the works, as one is for "Warm Springs," the HBO movie in which she played Eleanor Roosevelt tending a polio-stricken FDR. She made it to Emmy competition (along with ex-big sis Blythe Danner), but it was an intimidating ordeal for her because 1) Jane Alexander (who got two Emmy nominations in the 1970s as Eleanor) was in the film as FDR's mother, 2) Kenneth Branagh did FDR, and 3) "playing somebody that beloved. Everyone knows what she looks like and what she sounds like, and that's not particularly me. I'm tall, but she was six foot. Ken's not big either, compared to Franklin. We called ourselves 'the diminutive Roosevelts.'"

It's hard to imagine anything could intimidate someone who made Broadway history at 18 by bicycling between two Mike Nichols shows running simultaneously — Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and David Rabe's Hurlyburly. It wasn't hard to do, she shrugs lightly, "like doing two different characters in the same play" — only she had to go two blocks to do it. "I did both of them separately for a long time, too. When they overlapped it was the first semester of my freshman year at Barnard. I think there's an Equity rule against it now. You're putting another actor out of work. The only way Equity allowed it then was that they hired two understudies for one of the parts." Cynthia Nixon works in all mediums — and works well, but her heart gravitates to her acting roots. "I'm a real theatre junkie, as I said when I got my Tony. It's where I live. It means the world to me. People ask, 'What are your hobbies?' I don't have hobbies. I like to cook, be home with my kids, go to theatre — that's pretty much it."

Cynthia Nixon with Matthew Gumley in <i>Distracted</i>
Cynthia Nixon with Matthew Gumley in Distracted Photo by Joan Marcus
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