February 25, 2012

"Blood Knot" Connects Strongly to the Past

Almost everything is new and sleek at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the sprawling, reportedly $70 million, theater space on 42nd Street that starchitect Frank Gehry designed to be the home of the Signature Theatre Company.

The complex has three variously- sized theaters, allowing the company to mount multiple productions at the same time. Each theater opens onto a shared lobby that is filled with lots of tables and chairs where theatergoers can sip a drink from the new bar, browse a book from the new bookstore or just sit and watch the action. Plus, there’s a spiffy lady’s room with stalls galore, although I can’t figure out why Gehry and his crew thought it was smart to put the toilet handle behind the toilet lid.

But the one thing old that remains is Signature’s commitment to celebrating one playwright each season by staging a retrospective of his or her work. The honor this year has gone to Athold Fugard and the inaugural play at Signature’s new home is Blood Knot, the 1961 work that played for just one night before the authorities in Fugard’s native South Africa shut down the two-hander for having an interracial cast and, in the process, helped make Fugard an international name. 

Borrowing bits from the Bible’s Cain and Abel and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and filtering them through the corrosive screen of the brutal apartheid system that defined South Africa for almost 50 years, Blood Knot is the story of two half-brothers: Zachariah, who is dark-skinned; and Morris, who is light enough to pass for white. 

Zach and Morrie, as they call one another, live together in a miserable one-room shack, hoarding the meager amounts that Zach earns from a menial and demeaning job and fantasizing about saving enough to buy a small farm they can work together.

The brothers’ drab but cozy existence is upset when, lonely for female companionship, they team up—only Morrie can read and write—to answer a newspaper ad seeking a pen pal. The situation becomes even more unsettled when they discover that their correspondent is a white woman. Her invitation to meet sets off actions that force the men to confront long-suppressed feelings about one another and about the cruel insidiousness of racism.

Fugard and Zakes Mokae, the black South African actor who was his frequent collaborator, created the roles in the original 1961 production and played them 24 years later when Blood Knot opened on Broadway in 1986.  Mokae died three years ago but Fugard, who will turn 80 in June, is directing the current production.

Even so, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it.  I’d just been disappointed by the Roundabout’s current revival of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca (click here to read my review). And, to be honest, the woes of apartheid just aren’t as compelling as they once were (although the news today that Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized pulls at the heart and brings them back to mind). 

But then I saw that Fugard had cast Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd as Zach and Morrie and just the thought of those two sensational actors sinking their teeth into these meaty roles turned this production into a want-to-see for me. And I’m very glad I did.

Fugard has directed the actors to underscore the humor in the play’s first act, which helps make his customary talkiness go down more easily. It may take a little time to adjust to the South African accents that Shepherd (shakily) and Domingo (exuberantly) affect but the affectionate bond they establish between the brothers is apparent right from the first scene when Shepherd’s Morrie prepares a hot tub of water so that Colman’s weary Zach can soak his aching feet while the men banter about which of them most needs a bath.

The second act calls for harsher realities.  And, as much as I admired their performances, neither Colman nor Shepherd totally nails it. The discoveries the brothers make about themselves should be simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking.  Instead, as the lights faded on the final scene, I felt a quieter sadness.  But I also felt a profound respect.

Some works deserve to be revered for what they are.  Others for what they did.  Fugard’s work helped to change a country.  We should applaud it.  And we should applaud Signature too for recognizing that not everything has to be sleek and new.

February 22, 2012

"CQ/CX" Asks Some Provocative Questions But Cops Out When It Comes to Answering Them

Why write a play unless you have something to say?  The story of Jayson Blair, the young African-American reporter whose fabricated and plagiarized stories set-off a scandal that brought down the top two editors at the New York Times, would seem to offer opportunities to say some interesting things about race, journalism and unbridled ambition. 

But CQ/CX, Gabe McKinley's new play about the Blair affair, which opened last week in an Atlantic Theater Company production at the Peter Norton Space, offers no fresh insights about any of those subjects. 

I had expected more from the play and from its playwright. And, to be honest, I’m feeling badly about what I’m going to say about both of them because McKinley recently signed up to follow me on Twitter.  I was admittedly flattered and would like to respond in kind. But, as McKinley might say, “veritas est virtus.”

McKinley was working at the Times in 2003 when the Blair scandal broke (click here for the Times’ contemporaneous account of it) and he and Blair used to socialize together. Two of McKinley’s brothers still work at the paper (one used to cover the theater beat) and so he maintains an insider’s knowledge of how the paper works and how journalism is struggling to define itself in the online era. 

And yet the play’s problems begin with its overly-cute title. “CQ,” taken from the Latin phrase Caedit Quaestio, which literally means “the question put to the sword,” is supposed to be a well-known copyreader’s term used when a fact is being questioned and “CX” the response when the query has been answered. 

But I have to say that I have never seen either used in the many years I’ve worked at some of the country’s top new organizations. And McKinley is just as abstruse when it comes to recounting Blair’s story. For what he has written is simply a series of this-happened-and-then-that-happened scenes that unspool like an old newsreel that is missing some key frames. Like why any of it happened in the first place.

McKinley has slightly camouflaged the names of the major players, albeit not enough to ward off defamation suits if the aggrieved parties chose to make a fuss. Jayson Blair is now Jay Bennett; the Times’ then-editor Howell Raines has become Hal Martin and Raines’ No. 2, Gerald Boyd, the first African-American to make it onto the masthead, is here Gerald Haynes. The paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is just called Junior. 

But they’re all presented more as symbols than as believable people. And because the actors are given no subtext, most of them latch on to characteristics and hit those as hard are they can.  Which in several cases is far too much.   

Raines is an Alabama native and had a reputation for being a hard-charging editor but it’s hard to imagine that he was as cornpone and blustery as Arliss Howard makes his doppelgänger out to be. Or that Sulzberger is as much of a namby-pamby as David Pittu’s Junior is. 

The cast members playing the lesser-known characters come off better. Steve Rosen and Sheila Tapia are winning as two friends and fellow reporters whom Bennett eventually betrays.  And Larry Bryggman brings a distinctive world-weariness to the small part of an editor who represents the old school of journalism.

But the biggest problem is that McKinley doesn’t really try to explain why Blair did what he did. He's complained in interviews that Blair has never made that clear either.  But isn't it the playwright's job to supply the motivation for his characters? McKinley's failure to do so gives Kobi Libii too little to work with as the Blair stand-in.

McKinley says he spent months interviewing people about the incident and I’ve no doubt that some of those quotes made it into the finished play (click here to read about how he put it together). But while journalism has famously been called the first draft of history, theater should be something more than straight reportage.

Director David Leveaux uses all kinds of trendy stagecraft—flashy video projections, thumping interlude music, abrupt blackouts—to distract the audience away from the dramaturgical potholes.  But it isn’t enough.

The restlessness was palpable the night I saw the show. A few people didn’t return after the intermission.  But one person in the row right behind me seemed to be enjoying himself and laughed loudly at all the jokes. When I turned around, it was McKinley. 

It’s OK for a playwright to appreciate his own work and to encourage the actors in it but if he’s the only one getting it, that’s not enough either.

February 18, 2012

"Assistance" is an Amiable Workplace Comedy

Nearly every writer starts off imitating someone else.  Then if the novice has talent, he or she eventually develops his or her own unique voice.  In the old days, young playwrights modeled themselves after older playwrights.  But today, young playwrights are more likely to emulate young TV or movie writers. Or at least so it seems with Assistance, the new workplace comedy that’s currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons but that wouldn’t be out of place if it were scheduled in a sitcom time slot between “30 Rock” and “The Office.”

Luckily Leslye Headland, the show’s Los Angeles-based playwright who has indeed done some time in TV, has a knack for believably snappy dialog and so the evening is an entertaining one. And she’s come up with a scenario that is bound to strike a chord with the legions of bright young people who pour out of schools each year, eager to make their mark but reduced to marking time in thankless entry level jobs.

The over-worked and under-appreciated minions in Assistance are a group of assistants who work for a very wealthy, very demanding and often abusive big shot. They’re willing to take whatever he dishes out because those that survive the ordeal get to “move across the hall,” where they’ll get a crack at  becoming very wealthy and demanding themselves. 

Six of them go for that brass ring over the course of the play’s 80 minutes. The main two are Nick and Nora, who trade quips like their famous Dashiell Hammett namesakes but are so busy catering to their boss’s needs that they scarcely have time to acknowledge the romance that’s brewing between them (click here to see a trailer).

The cast is spot-on. Michael Esper and Virginia Kull are appealing as the ambition-crossed couple. A tart Amy Rosoff is the standout as the most unflappable of the assistants. And, of course, it’s always a pleasure to see Bobby Steggert on a stage.  Director Trip Cullman guides them and the other two members of the cast with an appropriately light touch.

Assistance isn’t the most meaningful play out there but it’s a genial one. Like Completeness, the similarly-amiable romcom that played at Playwrights Horizons last spring (click here to read my review) it would make a great play to see on a first date. Or when your favorite TV shows are in rerun. 

February 15, 2012

A Fifth Anniversary Message

Since yesterday was Valentine’s Day, my husband K and I took some time out to celebrate the great good luck of being able to share our love and lives with one another.  

But  Feb. 14 was also a red-letter day for me because it marks the anniversary— the fifth, no less!—of Broadway & Me.  And so I’m taking time out here to celebrate the great good fortune of having been able to share my love for the theater with all of you over these past five years. I plan to keep doing it and I hope you'll stick around too.

February 11, 2012

The Living is Now Easy for "Porgy and Bess"

The producers of  the show now known as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess announced this week that their controversial remix of the classic musical about lovers in a poor black fishing community along the South Carolina coast is extending its run, appropriately enough, through the end of summertime. 

So take that and put it in your hat, Stephen Sondheim.

I’m being cheeky about Sondheim because, as every theater lover knows, he wrote a letter to The New York Times condemning the changes that the revival’s  creative team—director Diana Paulus, book adapter Suzan Lori-Parks and musical adapter Diedre L. Murray—talked about in an interview before the show’s out-of-town run opened in Boston last summer (click here to catch up on all of that).

The team said they wanted to make the show more accessible for contemporary audiences but after the Sondheim letter came out, the chances of showing it to any audiences seemed at risk. But Porgy and Bess, a show about black people written by white people, has always been controversial (click here to read a terrific piece about its troubled history).  So the producers bore down and pushed on. 

And now they’re reaping the rewards for their perseverance. The new Porgy and Bess is a critical success, having scored a B+ on StageGrade, which aggregates the review scores of the top New York critics. The show is turning out to be a commercial hit too, filling an average 90% of the seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre this month, a time that’s traditionally slow for Broadway.

I wasn’t as swept away as some of the people in the audience at the performance my sister Joanne and I attended or as some other critics have been (click here to read some of those reviews) but by the end, I was giving the show a thumbs up too, even if not pumping my fist in the air. 

To be honest, I can’t say if I ended up liking this Porgy and Bess because of the production or because of the inherent power of this folk opera that is George Gershwin’s masterpiece.

Over the years, critics of the show have complained that George and Ira Gershwin and book writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward created a stereotypical picture of African-Americans: violent men, easy women, flamboyant religiosity and dialect-heavy speech. Still, although it may be un-p.c. to say it, I’ve always had a soft spot for Porgy and Bess.

As a kid, I adored the 1959 movie because it was set in Charleston and the nearby islands where my family came from.  And it didn’t hurt that the movie seemed to have every black star working in Hollywood at the time: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters and Pearl Bailey.

The music, of course, is gorgeous and it remains so, even if Paulus and Murray have cut more than an hour from the original score, reducing Gershwin’s nearly four-hour opera to a tidy two-and-a-half hour show (click here to read Paulus’ explanation for why they did what they did).

But all the standards are still there: “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing” and “I Loves You Porgy,” the first adult song that burrowed into my soul and that moves me as much today as it did when my 8-year-old self would sneak into our living room and play it (quietly) over and over again on the family stereo. 

The songs have been shuffled around a bit and in some cases reassigned in the new production. Most of the recitative has been changed into spoken dialog. And dialect has been toned down (“I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” is now “I Got Plenty of Nothing”). 

Meanwhile, Porgy, the crippled beggar who falls for the local floozy Bess, no longer gets around in a goat cart but with a cane and a leg brace (I’m not sure why they made the last change unless goats are hard to get nowadays or have become the new darlings of PETA).

Most of the praise for the production has gone to the performances. Audra McDonald plays Bess and brings all her Audra McDonald-prowess— sensational voice, great acting chops—to the role (click here to read an interview with her). And yet she wasn’t a sassy enough Bess for me. 

Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, was out the night I saw the show and I groaned when the little slip of paper that fell out of my Playbill read “The Role of Porgy Will Be Played By NATHANIEL STAMPLEY.”  But, after a little nervousness that made his voice momentarily crack in his first number, Stampley turned in a winning performance. And since he’s a smaller guy than Lewis, seemed more physically right for the part.

The dandified Sporting Life (he used to be Sportin’) usually provides much of the show’s comic relief and David Alan Grier nails all the humor. But he also captures the malevolence that lies just beneath the bonhomie of this hustler, who deals drugs and is always around to tempt Bess.

Similarly, NaTasha Yvette Williams, a large woman who plays Mariah, the mother figure of the Catfish Row neighborhood, refuses to settle for easy, big-woman laughs and turns the character into a textured human being.   

And Phillip Boykin makes a terrifically menacing Crown, the brute who is Bess’ lover (click here to read a profile ofhim). The duet between Boykin and McDonald is the best scene in the show. 

Not everything works. I wish Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist scenery had been a little less sleek.  When the action shifts to a nearby island for the picnic scene, a plain curtain is simply dropped over the stylized buildings of Catfish Row.  Couldn’t they at least have painted some trees on it?

I also wish Ronald K. Brown’s choreography had been more distinctive.  A family friend was a member of Brown’s dance company and so I’ve seen—and enjoyeda good deal of his work over the years but he seems unsure of himself here. The moves don’t always fit what people would do at the moment he has them doing them.

But enough of the show works to make it worth your while to see this Porgy and Bess. There’s been no word about whether Sondheim has seen it. But I sure would love to know what he’d have to say about it.

February 8, 2012

Will NBC's "Smash" Go Boffo or Bust?

Does it make me a heretic to say that I’m not yet sold on “Smash”?

NBC has certainly done everything it can to push its new series about the making of a Broadway musical, including buying full page ads in The New York Times, doing social media networking up the wazoo and running a big splashy all-stars commercial right before Sunday’s Super Bowl (click here in case you missed it).

According to the Times (click here to read the piece) NBC has spent more than $25 million to persuade people that Broadway can be as cool and water-cooler (or Twitter feed) hip as working in an ad agency in the ‘60s or living in an English manor house around the time of World War I. So it feels almost ungrateful to complain.

Besides, like you, I’ve only seen the pilot. It debuted on Monday night but sneak previews have been available on iTunes, Hulu and YouTube for weeks. And the job of the first episode of any TV series is to introduce the characters and establish the set-up, which “Smash” does well enough. 

Its main players include a successful writing team—Julia, who has a cranky husband, a crankier teenage son and, for some unknown reason, is thinking about adopting a baby from China; and Tom, her gay BFF—two ingénues who desperately want the starring role in Tom and Julia’s new musical about Marilyn Monroe; a brilliant but pain-in-the-ass director; and the show’s producer who is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.

Will Julia’s family adopt the baby?  Will the Broadway chorus kid (played by Broadway’s own Megan Hilty) get the part or will it go to the fresh-faced newcomer (“American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee)?  Will the producer’s vengeful husband wage financial warfare that will kill the show?  Will non-show queens in the TV audience care about any of it?

The NBC folks are clearly hoping that “Smash,” complete with fully-staged musical numbers, will catch on the way that “Glee” did.  But I don’t know about that since most of the “Smash” songs will be originals and much of “Glee’s” appeal has been that its songs are familiar ones, allowing viewers at home to get off on seeing how each one is performed—the same dynamic that has worked for ratings champ “American Idol."

Still, it’s hard to recall a series arriving with a stronger pedigree than “Smash” has. NBC’s new honcho-in-chief Robert Greenblatt brought it with him when he made the move from the cable network Showtime and has been endlessly vocal about how much he loves “Smash.” 

Hollywood heavyweight Stephen Spielberg is credited with coming up with the original idea for doing a show about Broadway and he hasn’t been shy about his feelings towards “Smash” either (click here to read a Q&A with him). 

They’ve hired Theresa Rebeck to run the series and since she’s worked on TV (writing shows like "Law & Order") and in the theater (her latest play Seminar is currently running on Broadway) it would be hard to find someone better suited for the task.  Meanwhile, the Hairspray duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is writing those original songs for the show-within-a-show musical.

And in addition to some please-the-general public names like Debra Messing of “Will & Grace” fame as Julia and a sensational Anjelica Huston as the producer (click here to read a profile of her), the “Smash” cast is filled with so many theater vets (Hilty, Christian Borle, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Cristofer, Will Chase and Wesley Taylor) that the show is almost a full-employment program for Broadway.

Maybe the problem is that my expectations were too high. But “Smash” seems unfocused to me. I want a clear central character—a Don Draper, an Earl of Grantham, a Tony Soprano—around whom all the others can pivot instead of having my attention diverted by a little from this one a little from that one before I've developed an attachment to any of them. 

And I don't want so many clichés: the wide-eyed ingénue, the lecherous director, the overly ambitious go-fer. Just one original character would have been nice to have in the mix. 

It wouldn’t have been difficult to find one. Spielberg bought the rights to the 1982 novel “Smash” by Garson Kanin, who worked on some 30 Broadway shows including directing the original Funny Girl and writing Born Yesterday and so certainly knew his way not only around backstage but how to tell a good story.  

Kanin’s “Smash” chronicles the making of a Broadway musical through the eyes of a smart young production assistant. It’s now out-of-print but it's a romp of a read and I wish Spielberg, Rebeck and the gang had held on to more than its title.

But maybe the actors will put some flesh on the bones of their TV characters and Rebeck and her writers will pull out some surprises as the series develops. 

The critics so far have been kind (click here for a round-up of their reviews) and there will be no badmouthing from the New York Post scandalmonger Michael Riedel because Rebeck was smart enough to write him into the show and ask him to play himself, which he's scheduled to do in the third episode (click here to read the back story on that). 

The first-night ratings were respectable: about 11.5 million viewers tuned in, earning the show a 4.2 rating (3.8 in the cherished 18-49 demographic), although it did slip to 3.8 (3.4)  in the second half hour. 

Meanwhile, however, not only is Playbill doing an overnight recap of the show (click here to read it) but so is The Onion’s AV Film Club (click here to read that) which is definitely cool. 

It's hard not to root for the show. As the producer Ken Davenport noted on his blog Monday, “ Imagine what a smash ‘Smash’ would mean to theatergoing and theatermaking all over this country” (click here to read his call to support the show).

So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed (and the show in my Tivo queue) because despite my reservations, I, too, would love it if "Smash" turned out to be must-see TV.  

February 4, 2012

"Look Back in Anger" Looks the Wrong Way

The trouble with seeing the revival of a groundbreaking play is that the ground has already been broken—and has probably been well trod. Trying to recapture the impact of the thing is like trying to re-experience the thrill of someone else's first kiss. 

There are few more celebrated groundbreakers in modern theater than John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the original “angry young men” drama that shook up British theater in 1956 by moving the action from the upper-class drawing room to the working-class kitchen. The Roundabout is now giving the play a revival at its Laura Pels Theatre but it would be hard to figure out what the fuss was all about if you only had this production to go by.

That’s due in large part to the showy high-concept that director Sam Gold has wrapped around it. Gold has made a name for himself over the last few years by taking an engagingly naturalistic approach to new works by female playwrights like Annie Baker, Zoe Kazan and Theresa Rebeck, with whom he collaborated on the current production of Seminar

But this time, staging an iconic work by a dead and very macho playwright, Gold opts for an expressionistic approach that pushes the audience away instead of drawing it into the play.

Look Back in Anger centers on Jimmy Porter, a smart but working class guy who rails against the rigidity of the class system that still ruled England after World War II. His uneasy marriage to an upper-middle-class woman only fuels Jimmy’s frustration and rage.

The play famously opens with the wife, Alison, ironing while Jimmy and his best friend Cliff sit reading the Sunday papers and waiting impatiently for the local pub to open. The ironing board and a few Sunday papers are still there on the stage of the Laura Pels but not much else is. 

For Gold has had set designer Andrew Lieberman erect a large wall that blocks off most of the stage.  The remaining narrow strip is strewn with rubbish (to symbolize the throwaway quality of the character’s lives?) and the actors are forced to perform all of the action in the tiny area.

They have to squeeze by one another when they want to get from one part of the stage to another.  They have to open and close folding chairs when they need to sit or pull an old dirty mattress across the floor when they need to lie down. All this seems to have unmoored the actors as much as it does the audience.

The Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, best known as Kevin on the TV family drama “Brothers and Sisters,” has the brooding good looks and volatile intensity that seem just right for Jimmy (his fellow Welshman Richard Burton played the role in the 1959 movie) but the impact is undermined when Gold has Rhys idly stand in a visible waiting area at the side of the stage whenever he isn’t in a scene.

A similar tension is also missing from Sarah Goldberg’s performance as Alison. She's a lovely actress but although Gold has said he wanted to emphasize the love story (click here to read an interview with him)  neither he nor Goldberg ever make it clear why Alison is so drawn to Jimmy who is so mean to her.  

One assumes she's with him for the sex and the chance to defy the upper-class conventions on which she was raised but all one can do is assume.  Maybe it would have been plainer if Gold hadn’t cut a scene with Alison’s father—and the character of the father—from this production.

Meanwhile,  Adam Driver, a Roundabout favorite, seems to have beefed up for the part of Cliff and has apparently been directed to play him as a muscle-headed lunk, when it might have been more effective to delve into Cliff’s feelings for the couple (possibly homoerotic for Jimmy, a mixture of jealousy and admiring envy towards Alison).

I get that Gold is trying to jolt the audience in the same way that the play did when it opened in 1956.  Most critics back then, with the notable exception of Kenneth Tynan, panned the play. The reviews for the revival are decidedly more mixed.  I'm sorry to say that I fall on the nay side. Call me old-fashioned but I would like to have seen the play as it was written.

February 1, 2012

"Wit" Satisfies the Heart, Head—and Soul

One of the big mysteries of the recent theatrical past is why Margaret Edson hasn’t written more plays.  Wit, the first—and only one—she wrote was the surprise hit of the 1998-1999 season, won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama and was turned into an Emmy-winning HBO movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. It's now making its Broadway debut in a lovely revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 

At the time of the original production, Edson, then a 37-year-old kindergarten teacher, told interviewers that she was working on another play. But there’s been no sight of it over the last 14 years.   

Instead, Edson has focused on her day job (she now teachers 6th grade in Atlanta) and on raising two sons with her partner Linda Merrill.  She says she has no plans to do another play.   

That may be good for her students and her family but it’s a true loss for theater lovers.  Because Wit is a wonderfully crafted piece of work. 

Edson based it on her earlier experiences as a clerk on a cancer ward. Its main character is Vivian Bearing, a tough-as-tarmac literature professor who specializes in the work of the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, the creator of the immortal phrase, Death, be not proud.” 

The play opens as Vivian, dressed in hospital gowns and wearing a baseball cap to cover a completely bald head, walks onstage and announces to the audience that she has Stage 4 ovarian cancer and probably will, by the end of the play, die. 

Vivian continues to narrate the play over the next 100 minutes, as she undergoes grueling experimental treatments and develops a more visceral appreciation for life.  It all sounds grim and cliché.  But it ain’t.

Wit lives up to its title and is filled with humor.  It’s also erudite, weaving its way through both the metaphorical language of Donne’s poetry and the clinical jargon of medical research with an engagingly nimble deftness. 

And while its subject matter is familiar from legions of TV doctor shows, Lifetime movies and Oprah novels, it somehow manages to sidestep the bathos that mires so many of them in sentimentality.

But that doesn’t mean the play isn’t affecting. As almost everything—her autonomy, her dignityis stripped from Vivian, Wit offers true catharsis. When I saw the play back in ‘98, several people in the audience actually put their heads in their hands and sobbed openly. 

Part of the reason they—and Iwere so moved was the sensational performance by Kathleen Chalfant, whose transformation over the course of the play was made all the more effective by her initially impregnable bearing (pun intended, I suppose). 

Cynthia Nixon, a stage vet since she was a kid but most famous for her role as Miranda, the brainy one in "Sex and the City," is now playing Vivian in the current production and she’s made of different stuff. 

Nixon’s Vivian comes across as more shy than intimidating. An eagerness to please pokes out beneath the brusqueness the role requires her to affect. I worried at first that she might be too soft to play the part but Nixon, herself a cancer survivor, finds her own way. 

She is aided by a strong supporting cast (particularly Cara Patterson as a sympathetic nurse) but the weight of the play is on Nixon’s shoulders and under the sure-handed direction of the MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow (who has also successfully battled cancer) she bears it with affecting grace.

“It works on so many levels,” my friend Mary Anne said as we made our way out of the theater.  Indeed it does, and if you love smart theater as much as I do, you’ll make your way to see Wit.