Repartee of 'Wit' candid to a fault

Flippant chat undermines cleverness of character

03/02/99

By Tom Sime / The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK - One of the highlights of Margaret Edson's Wit comes when its central character, a 50-year-old literature professor, projects and dissects a John Donne sonnet. With pointer in hand, smacking the screen for emphasis, she radiates authority, and the sonnet is pieced together and electrified into life as vividly as Mary Shelley's monster.

It's an excellent dramatic window into the intellect of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., who boasts of her "immense contribution to the study of English literature." But too much of Wit is as diagrammatic and declamatory as a not-so-stellar lecture. Kathleen Chalfant, though powerful as Vivian, is kept so busy addressing the audience directly that she can't flesh out her character by showing us her behavior.

The play concerns Vivian's discovery that she has "metastatic ovarian cancer," a sure killer. But in the spirit of her own love of research, she agrees to a radical, painful treatment regimen that stands only a slim chance of helping her. Now, we infer, she's the sonnet being dissected.

Though she spars verbally with her doctors, Vivian is at their mercy, and in Ms. Edson's stereotypical view of the medical profession, all the doctors care about is their experiment. Only nurse Susie (Paula Pizzi), though a bit dim, has a shred of compassion.

In Myung Hee Cho's clever design, the stage is skirted by a huge curtain like those around a hospital bed. But a world is not created; Vivian's constant chatter to the audience keeps us at a distance, as do her frequent reminders that this is a play: "I believe I die at the end. They've given me less than two hours."

Though flippancy toward the fourth wall is as worn-out a stage device as we have, Ms. Edson works it hard in what is more clearly a first play than has been recognized. Vivian's "I can't believe my life has become so corny!" is a first-play line through and through.

But she has some terrific ones too. "I thought being smart would take care of me," Vivian confides. "Time hangs - it weighs - and yet there is so little of it," she says of days in the hospital.

And Ms. Edson writes a moving, tender ending - but then ruins it with a gratuitous and melodramatic additional scene, one last dig at those heartless M.D.'s. Given the great mysteries Ms. Edson has tried to explore, this closing stitch-up is crude and leaves Wit itself resembling a procedure gone awry.


PERFORMANCE INFORMATION

Wit, presented by Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St., New York. Written by Margaret Edson. Directed by Derek Anson Jones. Set by Myung Hee Cho. Lighting by Michael Chybowski. Costumes by Ilona Somogyi. Music and sound by David Van Tieghem. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3. Ticket $35 to $49.50. Call (212) 505-0700.

 
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