Cynthia Nixon On Playing Eight (Out of 10) Roles In ‘The Seven Year Disappear’

The "And Just Like That..." and "Gilded Age" star plays a performance artist in the Off Broadway drama, but the two-person show has seven other parts for her to inhabit.

Taylor Trensch and Cynthia Nixon in The Seven Year Disappear. Monique Carboni

“Motherhood is the only thing in my life that I’ve really known for sure is something I wanted to do,” Cynthia Nixon once said. She stands by that still: “I always knew I would become a mother,” she tells Observer. “I’m not a person with a lot of goals, but that was certainly at the top of my list.”

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In real life, she has three sons of her own, and, as an actress, she won one of her two Tony Awards playing a grieving mother who is subconsciously trying to erase the memory of her deceased four-year-old son, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole.

Quite a different Mama Nixon is on view at the Pershing Square Signature Center these days (through March 31) in Jordan Seavey’s The Seven Year Disappear, and she isn’t whistling “M Is for the Many Things She Gave Me.”

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Mostly, what Miriam (Nixon) has given her son (Taylor Trensch) is her absence—and the name of Naphtali (Hebrew for “struggling” or “wrestling,” which describes his relationship with his mother), yet he sees her everywhere: in the faces of friends, coworkers, a guy he’s flirting with in a dark bar.

Miriam is a world-famous performance artist. “When I’m trying to explain who my character is to people, I always say that she’s like the American Marina Abramovic,” says Nixon. (Nixon and Abramovic have crossed paths before. Abramovic’s 2002 piece The House with the Ocean View—in which the Serbian conceptual artist lived inside a gallery on three open platforms in a gallery 12 days, sustained by only water—was the basis for a season six episode of Sex and the City, though Nixon’s Miranda character does not go the gallery.) 

Sara Ramírez and Cynthia Nixon in And Just Like That . . . Craig Blankenhorn/Max

Once Miriam’s art is installed in sacred places like MoMA, she vanishes for seven years, leaving her son to fend for himself and Wolfgang, a Teutonic friend of the family and his lover.

“I love the way the story plays with time,” Nixon notes. “It goes largely backwards in time, but you have a parallel track of what’s happening right now with the mother and son. Not to give anything away, but I found the play’s last scene such a wonderful surprise—and so moving.”

The Seven Year Disappear is a two-hander that has 10 different characters. In addition to a supremely mean mother, Nixon fields eight other roles that span both genders and assorted ethnicities. She’s somehow able to differentiate these people with subtle changes in her voice and her attitude.

Everybody was subject to change, she explains. “I play this character, Tomas, who is a DACA person—delayed action for childhood arrivals—who came into this country undocumented. He had a Spanish accent, and we eventually got rid of it. People I know who are DACA don’t have any kind of accent. They came here as kids, and now they basically sound like New Yorkers.”

Cynthia Nixon (center) with her And Just Like That… co-stars Sarita Choudhury and Sara Ramírez at the opening night party for The Seven Year Disappear at Green Fig Urban Eatery on February 25, 2024 in New York City. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

In the strange way that things work out when you and a playwright happen to share the same agent, The Seven Year Disappear showed up one day, suddenly and unceremoniously, on Nixon’s doorstep. 

“I’d not known Jordan Seavey’s work before,” she admits. “Then, when they sent me the play, I was fascinated. I was, like, ‘You mean I’d be playing all of these different people? Fantastic!’ 

“The characters that he writes are so delicious because he just has the most imaginative mind. Also, there are a lot of plays about the theater, but there’s not many plays at all that are just about the art world, so I found that wonderfully unchartered—and challenging—territory.”

Nixon wasted no time in sharing her discovery with director Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group. He planned to put the play into immediate production—then came the pandemic.   

“One of the daunting things about trying to do readings of this play before you have the whole production in hand is that you have so many characters and you haven’t developed who they are yet,” Nixon says. “You try and do your best to sketch in a little thumbnail before you’ve found them. Also, the play has changed a lot. Some of the characters are different now than they were originally.”

In the early read-through, there was a scene where Nixon was doing a veritable U.N. of accents. “It was a Thanksgiving party, and Wolfgang brought his European friends,” she says. “His Italian girlfriend, Francesca, two different German guys, a French person, and a Norwegian. There were six different accents I was doing in one scene. Some were men, some were women. Trying to distinguish them and delineate them—it was a fun exercise to work on, but it was cut pretty quickly. Other than Wolfgang, none of those characters ever showed up again in the play.”

Derek McLane’s design of the show consists of various shaped screens where mother and son are shown either in filmed footage and with live cameras. “You do get a feeling you’re not necessarily in a theater but you’re in an art instillation,” says Nixon. “If we didn’t have the screens, she’d just be a theater artist, and she’s not. She’s a museum-worthy performance artist.”

Trench, who was last seen as Mordred in Lincoln Center’s Camelot, has no problem keeping up with his leading lady. He was handpicked by Nixon. “He was the first person I thought of,” she says. “I had directed him in a reading at The New Group, and the playwright showed me some of Taylor’s work online. Then I remembered I had seen him in Matilda and Hello, Dolly! and a bunch of other things. He had so many of the right qualities for this piece. I do feel such a kinship with Taylor, and I felt like we really could come off as a mother and son.”

Nixon, who has been a longtime and faithful member of The New Group (both as an actress and as a director) while she was gathering additional glitter along the way via television series like Sex and the City, And Just Like That . . . and, most recently, The Gilded Age, will be honored March 18, at The New Group’s Annual Gala, Gala(xy), at The Edison Ballroom on West 47th St.

Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon in The Gilded Age. Barbara Nitke/HBO

After The Seven Year Disappear has run its course, there’s Season Three of two different HBO shows ahead. Filming for And Just Like That . . . reportedly begins in May, though it won’t see air until 2025. Season Three of  HBO’s The Gilded Age could possibly arrive later this year, and Nixon is among the crème de la crème of the New York theater community who have been corralled for this series. “We all feel like we’ve just fallen into a pot of honey,” she gleefully confesses. “When we started doing it, it was during the pandemic and Broadway was dark. Suddenly, we had these wonderful characters to play—thank you, Julian Fellowes—and a wonderful place to go and act on them. This kind of job doesn’t come along often. It’s not just the clothes of the era, but it’s the history of New York.”

When Nixon does return to the series, it will be in an unexpectedly vaulted position. In previous episodes, she and Christine Baranski were sisters, Ada and Agnes, who sat on a huge hunk of “old money” during the boom years of the 1880s in New York City. Baranski managed and distributed the considerable funds—in her haughty, no-nonsense, italic fashion—while Nixon mostly simpered on the sidelines. In the closing moments of season two, it develops that the marriage she entered into gamely but timidly, with a clergyman (Richard Sean Leonard), has left her with a fortune, while sister Agnes has been left penniless because of an alcoholic, no-account offspring (Jordan Waller). “Ada’s controlling the purse strings now, so who knows what changes she’ll bring,” says Nixon who’s not been told what changes she will bring.” Stay tuned.

Nixon first met Baranski in 1983, when she played Baranski’s 16-year-old daughter in Tom Stoppard’s play which Mike Nichols directed, The Real Thing. “We go back 40 years,” Nixon allows. “I always idolized her even before I worked with her. Of course, she was really too young to play my mother when she played my mother. I think we’re more believable as sisters.” 

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Cynthia Nixon On Playing Eight (Out of 10) Roles In ‘The Seven Year Disappear’