The role of Vivian Bearing, the acerbic John Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer and ravaged by experimental chemotherapy in Wit, is a terrifically difficult one in that it requires a very broad emotional range—from wry detachment to mortal pathos—but at the same time it necessitates sustaining a single note almost from curtain to curtain: It is only in the play’s closing scenes that Professor Bearing’s cold and cerebral remoteness is breached by the agonizing final facts of life. Cynthia Nixon seems an unlikely choice for a role associated with Emma Thompson; though she had a distinguished stage career before Sex and the City made her a household name, there is a kind of insubstantiality about Miss Nixon—an Ophelia, not a Lady Macbeth. And she seemed merely competent, and even a trifle unsteady, in Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. Whether she has summoned some previously unknown steel or has been...


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