Volume 78 - Number 41 / March 18 -24, 2009
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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Cynthia Nixon stars in “Distracted”

Written by Lisa Loomer
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street

Cynthia Nixon brings focus to “Distracted”
Actress recalls early career, weighs in on Ritalin


A tall and venerated personage named Fritz Weaver was, with his wife Rochelle Oliver, on his way out of the Viand, an Upper West Side coffee shop, when he stopped to have a word with a good-looking blonde in a booth near the door.

“Hello,” Weaver said. “I gave you your Theatre World Award when you were 14 years old. Now how did I know to do that?”

“Because you’re an actor! You know your lines!” said the good-looking blonde who is quite something of an actress herself.

Her name is Cynthia Nixon, and she did indeed win a Theatre World Award for her performance as bratty Dinah Lord in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” at Lincoln Center when she was 14. She has since won a bundle of other awards, including a Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of the grieving young mother in David Lindsay Adaire’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize “Rabbit Hole.” She is also fairly famous for playing lawyer Miranda Hobbes during the six-year run of television’s “Sex and the City.”

At the moment, she’s back on stage playing another grievously afflicted mother — one, however, whose child, 9-year-old Jesse, is only too much alive. Indeed, he has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and that is his mother’s problem and ongoing headache as she bounces from one doctor or shrink or form of treatment to another, much to the scorn of the kid’s average-good-guy father.

The play, at the Roundabout Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, is Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted,” directed by Mark Brokaw. Nixon gives dimension and believability (as always) to a character merely called Mama or Mrs. Cara — no first name. The actress shrugs off that blank. “I guess I just accepted it.”

She was born April 9, 1966, here in Manhattan, the daughter of Texas-bred journalist (the late) Walter E. Nixon and Chicago-bred writer (for TV’s “To Tell the Truth” among other outlets) Anne Nixon.

“I actually got into acting first through films. My mother had been an actress when young and knew people in the business. One was a director named Ed Levy who’d been at Yale Drama School. When I was 11, we ran into him. He was trying to finance a film he was making called ‘Mom, the Wolfman and Me.’

“By the time he made it, I was too old, but then I got into what were called ‘After-School Specials.’ I did one with Butterfly McQueen, another with Theresa Wright. Then along came ‘Little Darlings [1980],’ in which I played a little hippie girl in summer camp.”

“Two years later I auditioned for, and got, ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ ”

She was 17 turning 18, a freshman at Barnard, when Mike Nichols employed her simultaneously in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” and Sam Shepard’s “Hurlyburly.” The shows — “The Real Thing” at the Plymouth, “Hurlyburly” at the Barrymore — were only two blocks apart, and she had no problem chasing from one to the other and still hitting all her cues.

She was also terrific in both of them, as in all else she’s ever done. It so happens that Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were seated directly behind this theatergoer at “Distracted” last week. Just before the play began, Stiller leaned forward and murmured to me: “She saved my life at ‘Hurlyburly.’ ”

What he meant, he further murmured, was that he’d so hated the character he had to play — a loud, crass Hollywood agent who drags a bedraggled teenage runaway in as a sexual present for two smoother if no less rotten Hollywood types — that he blocked on learning his lines.

“I thought Nichols was going to fire me. But then, as we were about to go on, Cynthia [the bedraggled runaway] whispered to me: ‘It’s all right, Jerry, it’s all right.’ this 17-year-old kid bucking me up — and everything instantly straightened out.”

The big crisis in “Distracted” is whether or not to medicate 9-year-old Jesse (Matthew Gumley) with the pacifying Ritalin that his Dad (Josh Stamberg) so vehemently opposes.

“I have not been through any of that,” says the real-life mother of Samantha and Charlie. “I think as a society we do overmedicate. But if I had a child with ADD, I don’t know what I’d do. If Ritalin would work for her or him, I’d certainly do it.”

There is a funny shock-effect moment in “Distracted” when a Dr. Jinks suddenly jumps up, breaks character — becomes an actor playing Dr. Jinks — and exclaims: “I got to stop. I got to stop. You think I would even remember my fucking lines if it weren’t for Ritalin? No less be able to memorize four different parts?” [because the real. actual actor — Peter Benson — and the make-believe actor do indeed carry four parts].

Dr. Jinks doesn’t really need Ritalin. All he needs is a 17-year-old Cynthia Nixon whispering in his ear: “It’ll be all right, Doc, it’ll be all right.”

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