Reality Adds a New Dimension to Off-Broadway “WIT”

Vivian Bearing, PhD, a college professor of 17th-Century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Fifty years of age, Vivian is a fictional character.

Erin Cronican, producer/actor and Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater, is undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four metastatic breast cancer. Somewhat younger than Vivian, I surmise, Erin is a real-life woman.

Erin Cronican as Dr. Vivian Bearing [Photos: Russ Rowland]

Those two women sharing the stage in Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning “Wit” is at once realistic and mind-bending, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because, well, this is the epitome of ‘authentic’ casting. To say, however, that Ms. Cronican’s fine performance as Dr. Bearing is a happenstance of method acting, is to sell her short. Yes, she can certainly identify with the character, but one senses that her incarnation is grounded more in an actor’s instinct than in shared circumstance.

The Seeing Place company strives to achieve its laudable vision to “transform the world into a more empathetic and equitable place” with productions by and about, among other under-served cohorts, “people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.” To that end, “W;t,” sometimes spelled with that semi-colon to point up disputed punctuation in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, is an ideal choice.

Dr. Bearing’s cancer is incurable. “I don’t mean to give away the plot,” she announces early in the 100-minute play, “but I think I die at the end…I’ve got less than two hours. Then: curtain.” Nonetheless, she has agreed to a series of massive doses of chemotherapy to provide data for the research physicians who oversee the procedure. Besides the ‘regular’ side effects, among them nausea and hair loss, the high doses wrack the patient. “My treatment imperils my health,” Vivian understates.

Dr. Posner (Robin Friend) checks Vivian’s chart

[There have, of course, been advances in diagnosis and treatment of cancer since 1991, the year Edson, a public-school teacher, wrote this, her first and only play, but the situation as presented is plausible.]

In surgical gowns throughout, one tied in back, one in front, Cronican maneuvers effortlessly among Vivian’s realities: within the hospital scenes, enacting flashbacks, and confiding in the audience about the play itself, which, to her dismay, she says, “would contain elements of … humor.” In fact, it is Vivian’s mordant musings that provide humor, without which a play about a terminal illness could be a total downer. A goodly portion of the humor does not register here, but combined with the play’s inherent humanity, enough survives to lighten some moments. (It is not entirely their fault; Covid masks inhibit laughter.)

Among the supporting cast, Robin Friend scores as oncologist Jason Posner, who monitors Vivian’s vitals as she declines. The role is layered between Jason’s purely clinical approach to his patient and his almost reluctant concern for her state of mind and comfort. Friend, whose bio reveals his own history with testicular cancer, navigates those disparate characteristics very well. (He also tosses off medical jargon – myelosuppression, nephrotoxicity, malignant neoplasia et al – with admirable alacrity.)

Dr. Ashford (Janice Hall) at Vivian’s bedside

Two scenes with Vivian’s former mentor, Professor E. M. Ashford, contrast sharply. In flashback, she is a cold, demanding academic. Thirty years on, reading from a child’s picture book at Vivian’s bedside, Ashford, now eighty, exudes tenderness and compassion. Janice Hall plays both scenes believably. (Alas, a deviation from the scripted stage direction deprives the deathbed scene of its most moving element.)

In keeping with Seeing Place’s commitment to non-conventional casting (or non-commitment to conventional casting), Cancer Inpatient Unit nurse Susie Monahan is played by the play’s director Brynn Asha Walker. Their appearance does not conform to the usual image of nurse Susie, but the scenes with Vivian are written so sensitively that the rapport between the two characters retains warmth.

Vivian and Susie (Brynn Asha Walker) bond over popsicles

Asha Walker’s direction keeps the piece running smoothly on the venue’s intimate playing area, while fluid projections by Phoenix Lion and Scott Monnin’s lighting forestall potential confusion over variations in setting and role-doubling.

Vivian Bearing was originated in 1997 by Kathleen Chalfont, whose brother’s illness and death from cancer informed her highly acclaimed performance. Judith Light replaced Chalfont during the long off-Broadway run, and Emma Thompson starred in the 2001 Emmy Award-winning cable television film directed by Mike Nichols. Cynthia Nixon appeared in a 2012 limited run on Broadway. Other outstanding Vivians I have seen include Suzzanne Douglas at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and Ellen Barry at Boarshead Theater in Lansing, Michigan.

Clearly, the play belongs to whomever is playing Dr. Bearing. For now, that actor is Erin Cronican, whose unflagging energy and determination are more than a match for the role. (It plays Wednesday-Sunday because Tuesday is her chemo day. Think about that for a while.) Erin’s cancer diagnosis is not reason to see the play; her excellent performance stands on its own. Admittedly, though, it is reason for the extra layer of admiration she merits. From any angle, Erin Cronican’s achievement is remarkable.

Through January 16 at The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street, NYC. Wed – Sat at 7pm; Sun at 2 & 7pm. For tickets ($25-$35): www.theseeingplace.com             

[Margaret Edson includes in her play several disparaging remarks about Shakespeare. Dr. Posner even declares that Donne “makes Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card.” But what does the playwright decree for the final words spoken to Vivian (by Dr, Ashford) as she slips into final unconsciousness? “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Hardly a Hallmark card, that.]

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Understudy: Not a Job for the Weak of Heart

Theater lore abounds with tales of understudies who have gone on to a degree of stardom, some as a direct result of having filled in for an indisposed performer. Shirley Maclaine, who subbed for Carol Haney in “The Pajama Game” in 1954 is an oft-quoted example. Another is Sutton Foster, who took over “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 2002 and who is now on the reverse end of a resurgence of interest in the roles (sorry) of understudies, swings and standbys.

[Understudies, often already in minor roles, cover one or more larger roles; swings cover multiple ensemble roles in musicals. A standby covers one role and may be scheduled to perform at certain performances. Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” for example, has a standby “alternate,” who plays the vocally demanding role at matinees. Current alternate Emilie Kouatchou assumes the role full time in January, becoming the first Black Christine on Broadway. Presumably, she will have a standby alternate.]

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“Company” Swaps ‘Bobby, Bobby Baby’ for ‘Bobbie, Bobbie Baby’

Several terrific performances in the current Broadway revival of “Company” owe their provenance to its gender-switched casting. Originally about NYC bachelor Robert/Bobby being feted on his 35th birthday by ten of his friends (five couples), who also noodge him about being single at that advanced age (Imagine!), even as he grapples with his own ambivalence, the show now centers on birthday-girl Bobbie, who is subject of the same chagrin over her apparent commitment phobia.

Switching that pivotal role from male to female trickles down to some of the characters with whom he, now she, interacts. Still straight, Bobbie’s past/present romantic partners are now men and while four of the five couples are still hetero, one is same-sex male, a change that works better, I would wager, than might have been expected.

Katrina Lenk, center, and the cast of “Company” [Photo:Matthew Murphy]

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“Kimberly Akimbo” + Music: Perfect Together

How do you improve on perfection? Well, you can’t – by definition. But you can approach it from a different direction, which is what David Lindsay-Abaire has done in adapting his marvelous 2002 play “Kimberly Akimbo” into a 2021 musical. With a seamlessly tweaked book that retains and even deepens all the essentials, and his own inspired lyrics set to composer Jeanine (“Fun Home,” “Caroline, or Change”) Tesori’s fetching melodies, Lindsay-Abaire has re-set his flawless gem, on display at Atlantic Theater Company now through January 15.

Victoria Clark as Kimberly Akimbo [Photos by Ahron R. Foster]

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You’ll Seem to Find the Happiness You Seek/ When You’re Out Together Seeing “Cheek to Cheek”

Eleven outstanding performers (six singer-dancers and five musicians) are at the top of their game on stage, but the biggest stars of “Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood” are the title composer, of course, and the director/choreographer, Randy Skinner, who also conceived the piece. The York Theatre Company production, staged in a surprisingly posh venue below St. Jean’s Baptiste Church on East 76th Street (having been flooded out of their former basement digs, twelve blocks south), is consistently upscale and upbeat, even when the tempos are in ballad mode.

From left: Joseph Medeiros, Victoria Byrd, Phillip Attmore, Melanie Moore, Jeremy Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Performed in chronological order, abetted by Barry Kleinbort’s minimal book, the show opens with a soundtrack clip of Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” from “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie,” from 1927. That song, one of Berlin’s most enduring, had been a last-minute insert into the Rodgers and Hart musical “Betsy” at the behest of its star, Belle Baker. “Betsy” ran just 39 performances, but “Blue Skies” is said to have received twenty-four encores on opening night. And legend has it that Ms. Baker went up on the lyrics during #24, prompting Berlin to stand in the audience and finish the song with her. (Let’s believe it together.)

In between “Blue Skies” and the 1965 standalone “I Used to Play It by Ear,” are two dozen Berlin numbers, most from the Golden Age of movie musicals. One such, the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic “Top Hat,” is represented by “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be caught in the rain),” “The Piccolino,” which fostered a dance craze, and “Cheek to Cheek,” Berlin’s first Oscar-nominated song, which lost in 1935 to “Lullaby of Broadway” by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics).

From left: Jeremy Benton, Phillip Attmore, Joseph Medeiros

[Neither the show, nor certainly this review, is an in-depth Berlin bio (several are in print), but it is worth noting that while Warren had Dubin, George had Ira, Rodgers had Hart and, later, Hammerstein, etc., etc., Irving Berlin was the first major composer to write his own lyrics. He was also the first to append his name to titles,  a la “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”]       

While about a third of the selections were new to me, “Cheek to Cheek” is not a resurrection. The selections make their points; several, in fact, were purely instrumental dance compositions, “The Piccolino” and “The Yam” among them. The chronology makes for an interesting thread, and the classic numbers, for anyone even vaguely familiar with them, are wonderfully arranged by musical director David Hancock Turner and choreographed by Skinner (tap routines, swing and jazz moves, even a tango dip)…all performed with second-nature aplomb. Nicole Wee’s varietal costume designs evoke the period, and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting is spot-on.

Victoria Byrd and Joseph Medeiros dancing “Back to Back” in “Cheek to Cheek” (or the reverse)

You’ve heard the quip about Ginger dancing as well as Fred, even backwards and in heels? That came to mind during “Back to Back,” a number written for the 1939 film “Second Fiddle,” in which the couples perform intricate soft-shoe, swing and balletic moves in perfect synchrony…back-to-back. It is a marvel of choreography and execution. (Stage right and stage left are which way now?)

The set list is as notable for what is not included as for what is. “White Christmas” and, but for a snippet illustrating its re-cycled opening bars, “Easter Parade” are among the missing. The inclusion of those revered Christian-holiday pop hymns, both written by a Jewish Russian immigrant, would be fodder for a show of a different hue, one that will not be fleshed out here. (We are also spared “God Bless America,” perhaps in anticipation of a Kate Smith musical.) What is there is choice, from Jolson’s grainy warble through to the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” finale.

“Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” for Phillip Attmore and Melanie Moore to be caught in the rain

The first-rate cast includes Phillip Attmore (“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”); Jeremy Benton (“My Walking Stick” with Attmore); Victoria Byrd (“Better Luck Next Time”); Kaitlyn Davidson (“Be Careful, It’s my Heart”); Joseph Medeiros (“Change Partners”); and Melanie Moore (“Isn’t This a Lovely Day?”): a superlative sextet of solo and multi-combination song-and-dance pros.

And let’s name the terrific band, led by music director and arranger Turner on piano, with Louis B. Crocco, whose “Drum Crazy” solo slays; Noelle Rueschman and Amy Griffiths on reeds (at least two each); and Joseph Wallace, whose stand-up bass anchors the group.

Irving Berlin died in 1988 at age 101. Many of his 1,500 song titles directly reference singing or dancing, including ten in this show. This “Cheek to Cheek” ensemble is as fine a musical collaboration as you will see on or off Broadway – or anywhere else. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” indeed. (Or back up to it.)

Through Jan. 2 at the Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, NYC. Tues-Thurs at 7pm; Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2 and 7:30; Sun at 2:30pm. For tickets, including gift cards ($59-$79): 212-935-5820 or by emailing boxofice@yorkthtre.org

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“Morning’s at Seven” revived: The Play and Its Players Have Aged Well

At the intermission of “Morning’s at Seven,” directed by Dan Wackerman in revival at the Theatre of St. Clement’s, I mentioned to my companion that Paul Osborn’s 1940 comedy, which I had recently read, did not seem as good on its feet as it did on the page. Soon enough, I realized I had based that opinion on having read the entire play but having seen at that point only the first third. (Written in three acts, it is performed with one break.)

Like many (most?) worthy plays, especially comedies, the first third – or even half – is necessarily heavy on character and plot exposition, allowing them to proceed in such a way that we do not question what follows. What follows in “Morning’s at Seven” is a wonderfully warm, comforting tale of four sisters in their late-60s/early-70s whose mutual bonds of affection and concern have remained secure through the thick and thin of…well, of life.

From left: Alley Mills, Lindsay Crouse, Patty McCormack, Alma Cuervo [Photos: Maria Baranova]

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