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String Fever

Cynthia Nixon and David Thornton in String Fever
(Photo: Scott Wynn)
Cynthia Nixon is wrestling with the impulse to be a single mom again. She faced that quandary on Sex and the City last season and now she's giving it intense thought in the Ensemble Studio Thatre production of Jacquelyn Reingold's String Fever. Maybe Nixon is attracted to this subject matter because she's a new mother in real life; or maybe, in this case, she's genuinely taken with Reingold's script. That would make sense, since the comedy-drama has been prepared with large dollops of warmth and a bittersweet view of contemporary living that has an authentic ring.

Before getting to the script's good points and its odd flaw or two, more about Nixon: She's the latest in a line of theater leading ladies who give truth to the assessment of charm that J.M. Barrie offered almost 100 years ago in What Every Woman Knows: "If you have it, you don't need to have anything else, and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have." Nixon has it and a lot else. She's tall, carrot-topped, has a flawless complexion, bright eyes, a smile that mixes innocence with mischief, and a (post-partum) figure that wouldn't be out of place on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue (or National Geographic's). In all of her performances, she transmits an understanding that charm isn't enough for today's woman, radiating way-of-the-world wisdom to such an extent that she seems perfect casting for everything saucy and smart.

Nixon is to the theater what Meg Ryan has been to films for the last decade. Ryan comes to mind because String Fever is highly cinematic in the scene-flowing-into-scene way in which Reingold has laid it out. This feels like the kind of property that the endearing mega-star -- now in the tricky, 40-something stage of her career -- would have landed if it had been done first as a romantic flick. (Let's hope that if Harvey Weinstein or Joe Roth gets wind of this amusing trifle, they don't snap it up for Ryan and leave Nixon wondering what hit her.)

The role that Nixon is effortlessly filling every nook and cranny of is Lily, who is celebrating her 40th birthday. Okay, "celebrating" isn't quite the word. Recently dumped by boyfriend Matthew (David Thornton) because he's decided to find himself before committing to marriage and fatherhood, Lily hears her biological clock ticking as loudly as a home-made bomb in a Hollywood thriller. A violinist who also teaches youngsters how to fiddle, she's on the verge of opting for artificial insemination when she meets the kinda-cute father of a student. He's Frank (Jim Fyfe), a physicist leaning towards the much-bruited Theory of Everything as involving strings of basic matter rather than particles. As Frank hovers around, puppy-like, Lily confers with her father Artie (Tom Mardirosian), her best friend Janey (Cecilia deWolf), and an Icelandic comic named Gisli (Evan Handler) who's always on the go and always on the look-out for his next hunk of material.

Lily wants to hear these associates debate the pros and cons of single motherhood as opposed to marrying whatever Mr. Right-Enough arrives. While her nearest and dearest ponder the matter, they juggle their own problems. (Janey, for instance, is diagnosed with breast cancer and given an unpromising prognosis.) How Lily and company resolve their dilemmas won't be divulged here; to those who want a hint, it can be said that Reingold doesn't veer too far from the men-will-be-boys philosophy held by many women writing today, nor does she disregard currently prevalent attitudes concerning a modern woman's need to fend for herself.

Evan Handler in String Fever
(Photo: Scott Wynn)
Reingold's funny and pun-ny title indicates that she's got all sorts of strings on her mind. Lily and Frank make a joke about their shared involvement with strings or, as Lily comes to fear it, Frank's romance-department theory of no strings. (His major commitment is to his daughter and his cats.) The playful playwright also suggests that for people trying to work out a let's-just-get-through-today formula, a physicist's compulsion to tie everything in the universe together isn't appropriate; better to develop a theory that has more to do with Heloise or Dr. Phil. In depicting the waffling Frank and the ambivalent Matthew, who undertakes a psychiatric procedure that involves walking around with a folding beach chair, Reingold has her little laugh at science's expense.

The major topic addressed here has been addressed before, and the outcome presented by Reingold has been presented before, as in Wendy Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles. It's also in line with the popular belief that friends are more reliable than lovers. (Even as Lily considers bringing a contrite Matthew back into her good graces, Artie tries to reconcile with departed amour Beverly, and with similar results.) For these reasons, Reingold's resolution seems too pat; she's just a little too ready to condemn men for their cowardice when it comes to making and keeping commitments. Were Lily to spend less time hoping for Matthew and Frank to wise up and more time questioning her own predisposition when it comes to choosing likely mates, she might realize that she has other choices.

Still, Reingold has a feel for the quirks of real people and does especially well with Gisli, who communicates most often with Lily by way of videos. Playing Gisli, Evan Handler (another Sex and the City regular) affects what may or may not be a true Icelandic accent but which, regardless, induces many giggles. The other four cast members, as directed with admirable reticence by Mary B. Robinson, also help to make Reingold's universe a droll place to be. The Matthew imagined by David Thornton is so unsure of himself that even the words he speaks are blurred at the edges. Cecilia deWolf's Janey is as slightly undone as the hair-do she's hurriedly contrived with a butterfly clip. Jim Fyfe makes the amorous Frank an updated version of the absent-minded professor -- absent-minded, that is, about the people in his life. Tom Mardirosian's Artie is a variation on the well-meaning but beleaguered shlumpf he often impersonates, most recently on OZ.

Working within EST's budget constraints, set designer David P. Gordon has painted a heavenly-bodies upstage mural and assembled a few lightweight chairs and a hospital bed; costume designer Michael Krass has outfitted Nixon in bohemian-lady togs; and Michael London has conscientiously illuminated the various stage areas to which scenes shift. All told, String Fever will have audience members happily stringing along.

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