“Wit” Off-Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

Margaret Edson’s Pultizer prize-winning study of an ice-cold intellectual ravaged by advanced ovarian cancer has moved from its funky origins in Chelsea’s warehouse district to the trendy environs of the Village’s Union Square. And with a new cast it is better than ever.

Actually, I was one of the few dissenting voices on the original production. I felt that the central character’s empty personal life was never dealt with dramatically and left a hollow space where the play’s heart should have been. On top of that, the key roles were played too much on one note for my taste, emphasizing the intellectual rigor of the piece but sacrificing the human connection that would make us care for the people on stage.

Now however, new players in some key roles are bringing more colors and more ambiguity to their characters making them much more human and the play itself truly moving.

It’s hard to recommend an unsparing, intermission-less examination of the inevitable decline and agonizing death of a cancer patient as a fun evening in the theater, but “Wit” brings with it some of the catharsis that got the Greeks writing plays in the first place. Dr. Vivian Bearing, an eminent Donne scholar, has been diagnosed with advanced Stage Four metastatic ovarian cancer. Narrating her own tale, she reminds us that there is no Stage Five. The ending is never in doubt and, to the production’s great credit, the journey is harrowing.

Edson’s conceit here is to contrast the intellectual rigor and struggle for life’s meaning in John Donne’s metaphysical poetry (he’s the Elizabethan-era “Death be not proud” guy for those who have misplaced their Cliff Notes) with the seemingly pointless existence of the hard-driving Dr. Bearing, who has a barely disguised contempt for her students. It’s hard not to notice that the medical establishment has scant human interest in Dr. Bearing either, except as a terrific opportunity to experiment with a brutal new regimen of treatment. As you sow…

Edson raises some interesting issues but raising them, alas, is not quite the same as achieving a dramatic resolution. In the end, Dr. Bearing seems unchanged spiritually, her suffering yielding no insight. Edson, a teacher herself, does better with the poetry explication (in the form of flashbacks to Bearing’s lectures), which is exceptionally well done.

What’s noteworthy in the new incarnation of the play is the humanity brought to Bearing by Judith Light, probably best known for her sitcom role in Who’s The Boss? She’s every bit the intellectual tyrant, wielding the kind of scathing irony that can lacerate. But as her disease progresses, we can see the fear and bewilderment that her predecessor in the role hid too well. This performance made me care for Bearing in ways I didn’t think possible. Now the scene late in the play when Bearing is comforted by her old mentor (played with ethereal simplicity by Sally Parrish) is truly heartbreaking.

Also adding welcome leavening is Grant Show as the young researcher (and one time student of Bearing’s). His Dr. Posner is still totally lacking in both bedside manner and human warmth, but he lets us see the total guilelessness of the young twit that let’s us forgive him. Continuing, as Susie, the none-too-bright nurse with the heart of gold, Paula Pizzi turns in another humanizing performance.

The Union Square Theatre is steps away from its namesake, where you’ll find a fun greenmarket on several days of the week. If you’re looking for a splurgy pre- or post-theater dining experience, I recommend Patria at 20th Street and Park Avenue South. It’s “nuevo-Latino” cuisine is a theatrical experience in its own right.

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“The Gentleman Dancing Master” Off-Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

Restoration playwright William Wycherley is best known, to the extent he is known at all, for The Country Wife, a bawdy comedy about a predatory rake in a hypocritical society not too unlike our own.

Now The Pearl Theatre Company, which (if you’ll excuse the phrase) mounted The Country Wife a few years back, is doing us all the tremendous favor of offering the New York premiere (yes, you heard that right) of Wycherley’s 1671 comedy, The Gentleman Dancing Master.

Although less successful than Wycherley’s best work, Dancing Master is a fun little sex romp replete with double entendre but no actual sex that offers its own distinct pleasures.

The heart of the play is the rebellion of Hippolyta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a 14-year-old wise beyond her years, against the cloistering forced on her by her strict Catholic father (Dan Daily). With her maid and the unwitting aid of her doltish and foppish fiancé (Sean McNall) , a cousin chosen by her father, she plots to sample the wider world in the person of a dashing young gentleman of the town.

Hippolyta gets her wish when, somewhat against his better judgment, Mr. Gerrard (nicely played by Bradford Cover) is lured to her bed chamber and it’s love at first sight for both. Discovered in near flagrante, she has the presence of mind to introduce her newly minted lover as the harmless dancing master of the title.

Around this plot, Wycherley weaves a satire of contemporary manners and mannerisms. The fiancé has adopted the style of fashionable Paris, complete with pink pantaloons, gaudy cravats, and a phony French accent. The father is a merchant long absent in Spain who returns with all the cozy affectations and warmth of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with a severe black suit and a Castilian lisp.

All this may strike contemporary audiences as somewhat remote, although presumably Wycherley’s targets were instantly recognizable to his opening night crowd. The nearest modern parallel I could think of is the affectation of pampered suburban white kids dressing and talking like inner city gangsta rappers. Still, we get the joke, especially since much of the humor in the play comes from the clash of styles between father and son-in-law-to-be.

What does not seem at all remote to us is Hippolita’s post-feminist insistence on taking control of her own destiny. Wycherley, tellingly, gave her the name of the queen of the Amazons. The foreordained happy ending is delayed by her insistence on putting her beau to the test to see if he values her for herself or merely for the fortune that will be his once they marry.

One of the great joys of Restoration comedy is the way in which it tends to illustrate the old saw that the more things change the more they stay the same, and this production doesn’t disappoint. When Hippolita learns that her beau plans to whisk her away in a coach and four she is ecstatic, proving that teenage girls have always been suckers for the guy with the coolest set of wheels. And a scene in which a whore negotiates a sort of pre-nup with a well-heeled gent could have been written yesterday.

The Pearl is giving the play a very good, if not perfect, production. Marsha Stephanie Blake is just terrific as the headstrong Hippolita and the ever-reliable Dan Daily earns every laugh as the preposterous father who prefers to be known as Don Diego. Director Gus Kaikkonen has guided his very American cast to an economical sense of period style and engineered some suitably hilarious stage antics to highlight the farce. Superb swordsmanship, however, is perhaps too much to ask.

Another nice touch is the sung interludes in which two “ladies” of the town comment on the action and Heather Girardi and Rachel Botchan make perfectly delightful strumpets.

The only serious misstep is the portrayal of the foppish Monsieur de Paris (Sean McNall), for which I fault the director and costume designer. McNall gives every indication of being a very good actor when, late in the play, the plot frees him from the overwrought portrayal of the Frenchified fop. He gets the goofyness of the character just right, but I couldn’t help thinking he was pushed too far in other directions. Suffice it to say that pink wigs were not period and add nothing.

That’s a minor quibble, however, when there is so much else to celebrate in this production, not least of which is the chance to see this rarely produced farce. You might have to wait decades for your next shot at it.

The Gentleman Dancing Master plays at The Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Marks Place, in the East Village, through December 18, 2005.

Tickets are $40 – $50. For more information:
Box office: 212-598-9802

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