The story of how Cynthia Nixon made Broadway history contains an unlikely all-star cast that ranges from the famously erudite playwright Tom Stoppard to the even more famously erudite cartoon character Lisa Simpson. The tale began over 30 years ago when a then 17-year-old Nixon played the daughter of Jeremy Irons and Christine Baranski in the original Broadway production of Stoppard's The Real Thing (which also starred Glenn Close). The story continues this season when the Tony and Emmy Award–winning Nixon returns in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Stoppard's insightfully funny examination of marriage and fidelity, this time in the Baranski role. She co-stars with Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Nixon was a senior at Hunter College High School in Manhattan when director Mike Nichols cast her in the role of the savvy Debbie, a characteristically witty Stoppardian character who appears in one scene of the second act. Already a veteran of both Broadway (as Blythe Danner's little sister in The Philadelphia Story) and film (in the teen comedy "Little Darlings"), Nixon so impressed Nichols he handed her another script shortly after the opening of The Real Thing in 1984, this one for David Rabe's Hurlyburly, starring William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver.
Nixon premiered in that play in Chicago, leaving the role of Debbie to her understudy, Yeardley Smith. Hurlyburly came to New York that summer, taking up residence on Broadway two blocks away from The Real Thing. The idea of appearing in both shows at once had been a joke between Nixon and Mike Nichols, but became a reality when Smith left The Real Thing and moved to Los Angeles, where she became the voice of Lisa on "The Simpsons."
Finding another young actor proved difficult.
"I heard through the grapevine that they were in a little bit of a panic over at The Real Thing," Nixon recalls over a plate of matzo brei at Café Edison. "Mike Nichols was directing Whoopi Goldberg's one-woman show — and Whoopi didn't have a cast to go out with, so Mike arranged for her to go out one night with the cast of Hurlyburly. So I said to him, 'Hey, Mike, I heard Yeardley's replacement isn't doing so well. Y'know, I could do that part at the same time." Nichols's reply? "We'll call your agents tomorrow."
To the best of Nixon's knowledge, no one had ever played two non-repertory roles on Broadway simultaneously. Indeed, the only way Actors' Equity would allow it was if Nixon had a second understudy at The Real Thing, so technically no actor would be put out of work.
Nixon would begin her evening at the Barrymore, going on in the first scene as the innocent Donna in Hurlyburly. Then she'd change her clothes, say goodbye to the cast, which also included Harvey Keitel and Jerry Stiller, then jaywalk across 47th Street with a production assistant, cut through the lobby of the Edison Hotel, then make a shortcut through a parking lot between 46th and 45th to the Plymouth Theatre, now the Schoenfeld.
"I would arrive… maybe at intermission?" Nixon says, trying to remember. "Or just before. The first scene of Hurlyburly was really long." There, Nixon would change clothes again, get her hair done, and become British for her one scene-stealing scene as Debbie. She'd wait around for her curtain call, change clothes, then reverse the commute back to the Barrymore.
"By that point," she continues, "my character, who was a sweet innocent thing in the first act, is now like a street hooker. So I would do this very garish, 42nd Street, Times Square-type makeup." Nixon would take her second bow and then head to her dorm at Barnard College, where she was starting her freshman year.
"I only did it for about three months," she reports, "then gave my notice because I was panicked I would flunk my geology final."
Nixon's achievement proved unique and unmatched. "I think there's an Equity rule against it [now]," she says. "I'm told you can't do it." But the experience of performing The Real Thing itself made a lifelong impact. "Of all the adult actors that I worked with when I was a kid, there is nobody whose career I want to model mine on more than Christine Baranski — in every way: in terms of her unbelievable performances that I've seen decade after decade, but also in terms of her marriage, in terms of her life as a mother and now a grandmother. I don't think there's anybody who does it better."
Baranski was just 31 at the time, newly married and soon to be a mother offstage, as well. She won a Tony for the role, as did Irons, Close, Nichols and Stoppard for theirs. "Taking on this part, that she did so gorgeously," Nixon says, "is a step in my journey toward becoming Christine Baranski."
Now a mother herself (her daughter starts college this fall), Nixon will once again perform double duty and do two plays at once. This time, however, the second role will be as director of Rasheeda Speaking, a new play starring Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, premiering at the New Group this winter.
Now, if there were just some way to get her and Baranski on "The Simpsons" together, the circle would be complete.
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Cynthia Nixon Onstage