A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit review
Despite the raunchy one-liners, comedy about a couple falling in love in a cancer ward is really about the people mask difficult emotions, especially in families
As places to meet cute go, a cancer ward ranks pretty low. But Halley Feiffers distinctive if uncertain A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at MCC is a romantic comedy on the surface only. Underneath, it is about how anyone copes or doesnt with the everyday traumas and tragedies of life. It is also, of course, a gauntlet thrown to the man or woman assigned to affix that title to a theater marquee.
Karla, an aspiring comic (Beth Behrs of 2 Broke Girls), is on the ward visiting her mother, Marcie (Lisa Emery), who is recovering from a hysterectomy. While her mother moans in a morphine haze, Karla practices her routine. Karla works blue. Deep blue. Rape jokes about her vibrator blue. This is much to the horror of Don (Erik Lochtefeld), a sad sack divorcee visiting his dying mother (Jacqueline Sydney) in the other bed. Of course Karla and Don loathe each other, at first through the privacy curtains (the painfully accurate set is by Lauren Helpern) and then on sight. Lust inevitably develops.
In plays such as Im Gonna Pray for You So Hard and How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, Feiffer, a former actress and the daughter of the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, has revealed herself as a funny, angry writer and these qualities are on display here. But something else is at work, too. The companion piece to A Funny Thing is I Got Sick Then I Got Better, a solo play by Feiffers mother, Jenny Allen, about her tangle with endometrial cancer a decade ago.
The mother in A Funny Thing is not really Allen, the daughter is not Feiffer, but theres a palpable sense of real-life experience having shaped the play. This emotive core can sometimes feel at odds with Feiffers fictional departures, even though the fictions are perhaps more compelling. Its as though Feiffer wanted to write a comedy, but keeps being drawn back to drama. The pull of the family romance finally takes precedence over the sexual one.
Raunchy one-liners and scenes of cunnilingus aside, what the play does best is to show the varied ways its characters mask difficult emotions, mostly unsuccessfully. Karla hides behind her comedy, complaining to Don that you do not understand my charming and irreverent dark sense of humor at all. But even Don can see that the bleaker jokes come from a place of desperation. And Dons surface crabbiness and need for control suggests the unmanageable tumult of his inner life.
Under Trip Cullmans direction, Behrs is perhaps somewhat too eager to prove her stage bona fides, overplaying the role beyond even the demands of her performative character. But she is nicely countered by Lochtefeld, an actor of appealing truthfulness. And off-Broadway fans will thrill to hear Emery, an actor of patrician dignity, uttering lines like, Who do I have to fuck around here to get a fizzy water?
If this is a play about a fraught mother-daughter relationship, Feiffer has the sense and generosity to give Emerys Marcie the decisive line: Dont argue with me. I have cancer.