PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Wit Donne to Death

By Harry Haun
January 27, 2012

Meet the first-nighters at the opening night of the Broadway premiere of Margaret Edson's Wit starring Cynthia Nixon.



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God created substitute teachers so Margaret Edson could, with a relatively clear conscience and the blessing of her principal at Inman Middle School in Atlanta, personally witness the belated Broadway bow of her 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, Jan. 25 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

"We're over-the-moon that you made the journey to be with us tonight," MTC executive producer Barry Grove declared, welcoming her at the top of the evening. He called his company "a home for writers" and pointed out to her a few cases in point around the room — like, say, David Ives, whose Venus in Fur was last at the Friedman (and will resume performances "at the Lyceum in just two weeks"), and Proof Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn, whose The Columnist will follow Wit "on this very stage in April."

But enough commercials. "Maggie, tonight is your night," he said. "Stand up and take a bow." With that, a long-stemmed, prim woman rose in the middle of the house to thunderous applause from the first-nighters. A second wave of it came at the curtain call when Cynthia Nixon threw her an appreciative kiss from the stage.

All in all, there would much to relay to her sixth graders when she returns to work first thing Monday morning. Unlike most people making their Broadway debuts, Edson remained resolutely grounded as she made the rounds of print and television interviews that followed the play at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill after-party.

Civilian concerns seemed to keep her head on straight, unturned by the hoopla coming at her from all sides. The press found it hard to fathom that she hadn't followed this terrific play up with more of the same — and, furthermore, wouldn't.

"I really wanted to write this play," she said. "I wrote it 20 years ago when I was 30, and, when I wrote it, I was free. I wasn't expecting it to be performed, and I wasn't writing a play to please producers. I just wrote the play that I wanted to write. That, now, Lynne Meadow has chosen to put it on Broadway is very meaningful to me. This is a wonderful production, and I'm very proud to see my work at MTC."

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Margaret Edson
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Wit chronicles the crumbling of a towering academician — Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college prof and arrogant specialist in 17th century metaphysical poetry (particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, he of "Death Be Not Proud" fame).

Diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, she learns as her life slowly ebbs away that being smart is not enough to see her through this final ordeal. On her deathbed, she's done with Donne, she tells her ancient mentor (Suzanne Bertish), who consoles her instead with a sentimental children's fable, "The Runaway Bunny."

Because Edson writes with authority and authenticity, one might suspect her play is personally based. "Professor Bearing is very much like me," she conceded. The big difference, she added, is that "I'm on to myself." Bunny and Donne are served in equal measures to her sixth graders. "I don't belong in either world. I did research on cancer treatment, and then, for the play, I did research on John Donne. Then, I combined them in my own way. I'm an outsider to both those worlds, actually."

As a one-shot (possibly an only-shot) goes, Wit feels like a miracle to Edson "every day, every production. I never thought it would be produced. The script is studied in English classes, in medical schools and in chaplaincy-training programs. It is performed all over the world. Colleges perform it. The most recent production I saw was at a Mennonite College in Kansas. I went right from that one to this one."

None other than director Mike Nichols, who made an Emmy-winning TV movie of Wit with Emma Thompson, tried in vain to talk some more plays out of Edson — albeit, her "no" is more along the order of "not anytime soon."


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When Wit first surfaced 13 years ago Off-Broadway, it won every award that wasn't nailed down and every Best Actress prize for the incomparable Kathleen Chalfant, save one — the Tony, which then and now only honors Broadway. Its tardy appearance on the Main Stem now at least gives Nixon a shot at that award.

"There are so many things I love about Vivian," the actress gushed sincerely. "I love her speeches. I love her talking to the audience. I love her sly humor. I love her determination not to be sentimental — until she embraces sentimentality with open arms because finally she embraces feeling. It is one thing to see someone who is emotionally connected already have an emotional experience, but to see someone who is emotionally detached finally come to their feelings — that's a big thing to see."

The density and intensity of the character's scholarly verbiage would be daunting to other actresses, but Nixon jumped into the words with gleeful abandon. "I did, I did, I just did. It didn't even take me that long to memorize, either." What was much harder, she allowed, was "finding the modulation of how her emotion finally cracks through — not having it happen too early, not having it happen too late, not having it be too big for too long — to really modulate it so it's just right."

Her calibration apparently jived with Edson's. "She seemed very pleased," Nixon said cautiously. "I really haven't gotten a chance to debrief with her, but she kept saying to me, 'You're so brave, you're so brave,' so I thought that was a good sign."

Nixon would qualify as Poster Child for Actress Bravery, if only for the show's logo in which she fearlessly, almost defiantly, displays a cancer patient's shaved head.

Greg Keller
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meadow, artistic director for MTC and the show's nominal director, was plainly pleased at what she had wrought. "I had a ball," she said, then amended that: "It sounds crazy to describe this play as deep and harrowing and funny and a large play because I think the writing of the play is so good. I think that the play is about something that really matters. It is, in its own way, talking to us in a non-preachy way about what it means to have grace in our lives, to face life with an understanding of death. This all sounds like, 'Oh, do I want to sit through this in the theatre?' — but the reality is: every night people are sitting there, they're laughing, they're crying, they're leaping to their feet — that tells you something. You can't make that up. You can't take 650 people and say, 'Now, you have to stand up.' They do this on their own because they're moved. With Cynthia's work, it's an incredible experience."

Greg Keller, Broadway-debuting here as the professor's primary M.D. and her former A-minus student ("I wish I'd given him an A"), attested to the even-keeled rehearsal-process temperature. "We always made sure that we kept the rehearsal room light and fun — but serious when it needed to be serious," he relayed, "and Lynne was really great about understanding the demands of the show."

"Honestly, it was completely dreamy," seconded Jessica Dickey, one of the medical ensemble. "Cynthia, just from the start, was such an impeccable leader and gracious and smart and kind and so competent at her craft. All those rumors are true there. And Lynne has such a generous spirit and brought that into the room. Every day we began with this circle, and we worked on the play, and it really sorta embodied the spirit of the whole process, and it continues now even into the run."

Sierra Boggess and mother Kellen Turner Boggess
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Several first-nighters were fresh in from Sundance where they had films launched — Marin Ireland for one, and Andre Holland and Glenn Davis for two. Ireland's "28 Hotel Rooms" is the first time she has worked with Chris Messina since they did Caryl Churchill's Far Away years ago. The movie, she said, "is a little Same Time, Next Year-ish — a couple having an affair over many years in the same hotel. Time-wise, it's a little blurry. It doesn't go by months or years. It goes by rooms." Davis said he and Holland constitute "The Brothers" in "a coming-of-age story that we created ourselves and had our friends shoot it." Just getting it made was pretty "coming-of-age," too, he conceded.

Fresh from her Atlantic crossing was The Little Mermaid herself. "I just got off the plane from London, literally a couple of hours ago," said Sierra Boggess. "I was doing some press for Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert that I did at Albert Hall, which is on DVD now. It will be released here next month."

A contingent from Regrets, MTC's next offering at its City Center space, was among the first-nighters — Richard Topol, Tony winner Adriane Lenox and director Carolyn Cantor. "We start rehearsals in two weeks," said Topol. "I play a nebbish Queens pet-shop owner. It's going to give me a real stretch, isn't it? — but I think I might have a chance. I'm real excited, actually."

Tony Roberts was in good spirits, too. "I'm doing an audio book by Stuart Woods, the 17th one that I've done in the past 20 years. I play an ex-New York City Police detective by the name of Stone Barrington. I'm in the middle of recording it, and it's a great pleasure. The name of this one is 'Unnatural Acts.' Isn't that enticing?"

Walter Bobbie and Charlotte d'Amboise
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Director Walter Bobbie said after installing Venus in Fur at the Lyceum, he'll resume work on Terrence McNally's Golden Age. Reworked since its DC debut, it occupies a slot on MTC's schedule for next season.

"I had Jane Alexander massaging my feet today so things could be worse," chirped Laila Robins about the rehearsals for The Lady From Dubuque, over at Signature. She has been wanting to work with Alexander since her boyfriend, Bob Cuccioli, co-starred with Alexander in A Moon To Dance By. "They did it at Pittsburgh, and then they did it at the George Street Playhouse. It was really a beautiful piece. I was sad it didn't come into the city. It was about D.H. Lawrence's widow and her Italian lover. Now, it's my turn to hug and kiss her."

Also present: Edward Hibbert, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Margaret Colin, Max Baker, Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, Master Class' Alexandra Silber, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Maria Dizzia, Kieran Campion, lyricist Susan Birkenhead, producers Liz McCann and Jeffrey Richards, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, Arian Moayed, playwright Matthew Lopez, Charlotte d'Amboise, Good People's Renee Elise Goldsberry and that vision of black-laced loveliness, Kim Cattrall, from Nixon's old "Sex and the City" days.

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