Sentimental Journey

Sentimental Journey With her role in David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, Cynthia Nixon adds another spirited woman to her repertoire.

Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon

********************

Cynthia Nixon may have grown up in New York and lived on the Upper West Side most of her life, but the Emmy Award-winning actress says that her own life is a far cry from the steamy shenanigans of the four successful fashionistas on the beloved HBO series "Sex and the City" - that pop culture phenomenon that turned Nixon and her co-stars into household names.

"First of all, I was never really single. And I was never one to spend a lot of money on clothes or going out. It just has nothing to do with my life," says the intelligent, warm and down-to-earth Nixon, who is currently starring alongside Tyne Daly, John Slattery and Mary Catherine Garrison in the new David Lindsay-Abaire play Rabbit Hole at the Biltmore Theatre.

Even though she's sitting in a sushi joint on the Upper West Side, the stomping grounds of the four galpals from "Sex and the City," Nixon seems worlds away from her role as corporate lawyer turned working mom Miranda Hobbes. The famous flaming red tresses that fans of the series came to know and love have been replaced with Nixon's natural blonde, and her whole look is decidedly unglamorous on this weekday afternoon.

Although she calls the series one of the greatest jobs she's ever had, the experience is beginning to fade. "I still have some of the clothes and some of the shoes, but I can't really get away with wearing them anymore. They're out-of-date. And the show feels a little like that to me. I do miss it, but it feels like it's from a different period in my life." Yet thanks to her turn as the independent-minded Miranda, Nixon may be cornering the market on tough-talking, self-assured women who run their lives like a well-oiled machine and mask their vulnerabilities with a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor.

When the casting process for Rabbit Hole began, playwright Lindsay-Abaire and the producers at Manhattan Theatre Club immediately thought of Nixon for the central role of Becca. "The character is very honest and soulful and wry," says Lindsay-Abaire. "And I think [Cynthia] is one of the most unsentimental actresses out there. I love that about her. She just wants to get to the truthfulness of the scene and of the character. And she's incredibly funny - in a very dry way that's exactly right for this character."

A straightforward drama about a family whose life is turned upside down by a devastating accident, Rabbit Hole marks a wholesale departure from the wacky, off-kilter absurdity that is a hallmark of previous Lindsay-Abaire plays like Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo. As a husband and wife cope with the aftermath of the tragedy, they begin drifting further apart. "It's about a family who find themselves in an entirely different world, where everything is upside down and the rules that they had grown up with don't apply," says Nixon. "They're trying to get back to earth and find their bearings again."

Nixon says that what keeps the play from becoming a maudlin "weep-fest" is Lindsay-Abaire's honest approach to looking at the ways that people grieve. "Becca is very tough-minded. And she doesn't have a lot of self-pity or sentimentality. She's fighting so hard against the sentimentality, in the same way that I think the play is."

Fortunately, Nixon has a lifetime of acting experience to draw on. She made her Broadway debut in a revival of The Philadelphia Story at the age of 14 - the same year that "Little Darlings," the teen girl drama in which she appeared with Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol, was released. But unlike many child actors who get eaten up by the business, Nixon has kept a level head, and her career has advanced at a steady pace.

In 1984 she made news around the city doing double duty in two Broadway plays. She began her evenings as Donna in Hurlyburly at the Barrymore Theatre, then strolled over to the Plymouth to perform one scene as Debbie in The Real Thing before heading back for the second act of Hurlyburly. "They were very different characters. So it made for a nice contrast," she recalls. "It sounds so strange and no one ever does it, but it was pretty easy to do. They were both juicy parts, but neither was very big."

But it wasn't until 1998, when Nixon was offered "Sex and the City," that her fame skyrocketed to stratospheric heights. The show became a cultural touchstone thanks to its steamy storylines, frank talk of female sexuality and the glamorous fashions of its beloved characters.

In 2004, the last year of the show, Nixon won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (it was her third nomination). And although she acknowledges the drawbacks to her new level of fame, she credits the show with expanding her acting horizons. "Apart from 'Sex and the City' being a wonderful experience, it has opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn't otherwise have. And I'm grateful for that."