Let’s face it: We all have problems. Sometimes we get through them, but sometimes we don’t because much of what distresses us is simply out of our control.
Illnesses, particularly cancer, fit into this category, whether we’re the ones afflicted by it, or we’re on the outside looking in, watching a loved one brave a harrowing duel with the terrible disease. Through it all, all we can ask of ourselves is to show up and do our part as supporters and fighters until the final tally of triumph or tragedy.
When we’re called upon to stay the course of cancer’s perilous ride, one recourse we have to preserve our equanimity is humor. In “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” which is playing at the Geffen Playhouse through October 8th, playwright and star, Halley Feiffer, has just the right approach. Her talented director, Trip Cullman, helps with the execution, cannily carrying out the words of Feiffer’s compelling dramedy to a meaningful fruition that is briskly paced, and benefits both from an astoundingly realistic scenic design representing a hospital room (inclusive of a bathroom) by Lauren Helpern, and a brightly vulnerable stage by lighting designer Matthew Richards.
Feiffer plays Karla, a comedian with an affinity for no-holds-barred jokes, for whom no topic is verboten (the role was originally portrayed not by Feiffer, but by Beth Behrs at the MCC Theater in NYC). Our first impression of Karla, who is visiting and running comedic bits by the side of her cancer-stricken mother, Marcie (JoBeth Williams), inside a room at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is that she is irritating, brash, and downright vulgar at times. But, that’s before we’ve gotten to know Karla and the family history that has informed her identity, and has motivated her initial recalcitrance toward Don (Jason Butler Harner), who takes exception to Karla’s comedy upon visiting his gravely ill mother, Geena (Eileen T’Kaye), on the other side of the partitioning curtain.
As we learn through the disarming authenticity of Feiffer’s performance, Karla is a well-intentioned young woman, after all, who has sublimated the pain of her father’s abandonment, deceased sister, and unloving mother into an almost ribald amusement with the world. Feiffer has a great grasp of this underlying hurt in Karla and how it can and does come forth at the most inopportune times, oftentimes yielding moments of awkward hilarity, if not uncontrollable laughter, that surpasses the threshold of discomfort into a welcome relief from harsh reality.
As Karla, and as the writer of the play, Feiffer deftly uses humor to deflect the characters from a deep sadness until they’re willing to confront it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, or with saying the most outlandish things, which can surprisingly and ironically draw our attention more to something as simple and commonplace as cancer, rather than desensitizing us to it. In other words, humor is a valve for extinguishing our pain, and the ice-breaker that preludes not only a difficult conversation about loss, but binds individuals together during adversity, cultivating an invaluable support system.
One example of this is how joking about Marcie’s shrill delivery of “she’s dead” — who, at one point, is aroused out of her slumber to just blurt out that line — actually begets an amiability between Karla and Don that opens up a previously suppressed Pandora’s box, including the fact that the line references Karla’s sister, who died of a drug overdose, which, in turn, sheds light on Don’s drug-addled son, as well as the hindsight of Karla’s tough upbringing, and the inexorable love shared among parent and child. Undoubtedly, there is catharsis to be found even in the most unusual of circumstances.
The character of Don, who, albeit being a millionaire because he sold his online wedding-planning matchmaking service, is so beleaguered by his son, his mother’s situation, and the recent separation from his wife, that he has completely let himself go with grossly shabby attire, prompting witticisms by Karla such as, “those sweat pants are a hate crime.” More importantly, he needs the very humor that he at first lambastes Karla about because it widens his perspective, eases his psychological burdens, and frees him to look ahead with a sense of hope.
As Don, Harner, who can also be seen on Netflix’s “Ozark,” is as present as an actor can be on stage. Harner’s every mannerism and action – from exasperatedly running his fingers through his hair, to sobbing on the floor, to angrily punching the bathroom door, to even a moving monologue about the life and times of a condom, is so naturally sensitive that we forget we’re watching a performance. Harner has an organic physicality about how he processes his character’s trials, and it is via his interaction with Feiffer’s Karla and Williams’ Marcie that we’re able to observe how Don goes from having a judgemental, nothing-to-lose mentality, to an accepting and everything-to-live-for purpose.
In addition to Eileen T’Kaye, who, as Don’s ailing mother (Geena), shines with her utterance of memorable quips during an outrageously funny scene involving the bathroom, JoBeth Williams makes Marcie’s presence felt to an impressive degree, even though her character is also bed-ridden the entire time. Emboldened as she may seem, Marcie is doubtlessly affected emotionally as she is physically, overcompensating with verbally abusive comments toward her surviving daughter, Karla, whom she tries to push away.
However, the headstrong manner in which Williams inhabits the role, in the lamentable light of Marcie’s cancer, evokes a sense of forgiveness from Karla, Don, and the audience, who want to give Marcie the benefit of the doubt. Needless to say, we chuckle at Marcie’s raw straightforwardness because we know, as counter-productive as it is, it’s her way of staving off her agony. Engaging little bits, rife with excellent comic timing, as in when she triumphantly disposes of her used-up seltzer cups in the trash bin, reveal a humanity to Marcie that gradually unravels. As we discover with Karla, once the frivolity runs out, Marcie is found to be similarly misunderstood, for she has unresolved loose ends that require tending to; in fact, this is a common need the two share. As such, the challenge for mother and daughter is balancing humor with the starkness of reality, whereas for Don, who is overwhelmed by reality, the key is learning how to utilize humor to give him a respite from life’s tribulations.
“A Funny Thing Happened…” is highly recommended for teaching us that nothing is necessarily immune to being laughed at or about, especially many of life’s most serious situations. While humor may hint at pain, or be inspired by it, the permission to laugh can heal our minds, even if our bodies tell us differently. Sure, doing so might even be a coping mechanism, but levity can often stir the agency that leads us down the darkest ravine and through to the other side where forgiveness, hope, and ultimately happiness await us.
For more information about “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” please visit geffenplayhouse.org