Just when you thought you had seen every variant of the cancer drama on stage and screen--the plucky, wise-cracking sufferer, the hardass but caring nurses, the gallows humor, the pain, the unfairness, the surreal humor amid the human tragedy, for every tissue for tears, a belly laugh or barbed thorn--comes the distinctively titled A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, presently at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
The playwright and actress Halley Feiffer's clever play for MCC Theater, just as cleverly directed by Trip Cullman, knocks the audience off its feet as soon as it begins, and continues to do so for its next whip-smart, intermission-less 85 minutes.
As we take our seats, we see two patients, Marcie (Lisa Emery) and Geena (Jacqueline Sydney) sleeping in a hospital room, their beds separated by a curtain. They cannot see each other. As the play unfurls, the actors use, ingeniously, the plain linear sweep of Lauren Helpern's set.
Marcie's daughter Karla (Beth Behrs, from CBS's Two Broke Girls), a stand-up comic, sits beside her sleeping mom, trying out a succession of ever-more shocking rape jokes.
Marcie cannot and does not answer, and in the silence Karla's smutty and violent musings become more and more extreme, much to the initial shock and discomfort of Don (Erik Lochtefeld), Geena's son who has entered the room--and is listening, horrified, to Karla's disgusting thinking-aloud.
We watch him--middle-aged, seemingly conventional compared to her beanie-wearing, self-obsessed millennial-- contort face and body in silent outrage.
Don eventually interjects, asking her to stop speaking so foully--and Karla, so brattish, snarky and confident in her joke-forming, is suddenly also horrified, at being overheard.
We watch both Don and Karla creased in mortification--it is hilarious. After water is thrown and pants accidentally dropped, an uneasy bond begins to form between twentysomething woman and middle-aged man.
In this, her third play, Feiffer's writing is sharp, extremely funny, and extremely piercing which is as you might hope from the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer.
Don, it turns out, has been caring for Geena dedicatedly for years. Karla notes that he looks a physical wreck himself--he doesn't notice the shapeless, cruddy track-pants that have apparently fastened themselves to his body. If Karla is all sharp edges, Don is bruised softness.
Their conversation, vexed as it begins, takes on an intimacy, perhaps quickened by the shared experience of having a loved one with cancer. In different ways, they are both self-destructive and self-negating. Both would benefit from some love and care.
Karla is stunned to find out Don has money, Don finds out that for all her smut-talk, Karla has tremendous vulnerability. Don was read to sleep, while Karla says the family watched Law and Order to usher them to the land of nod.
Behrs and Lochtefeld have a great, nervy chemistry--she skittish, loud, an avalanche of eye-rolls and irony; he is quieter, gentler, but also full of rage at his estranged, and utterly thoughtless, son. Don and Karla make each other think, and help one another.
They sexually together inevitably, at what unfolds as a critical moment, and in a scene made all the more excruciating because during it Karla can't shut the hell up about her past sexual experiences and betrayals. This moment is brilliantly staged and paced. You will watch and wince.
Through all this Marcie appears asleep, but with occasional movements; when she (and Geena, later) speaks, it comes a hilarious surprise. Geena does not speak much actually, Marcie does--and her words are poison-tipped spears aimed squarely at her daughter. Emery is excellent: flirtatious with Don, castigating with her daughter, and--to shock us all out of the notion that cancer patients are saintly victims--as foul-mouthed as her daughter, and apparently a whole lot meaner.
It is fascinating to watch the swaggering Karla curl up into a frightened ball as her mother asserts her dominance and control.
The hospital, as hospitals do, concentrates the dysfunction between loved ones--and it takes determination and bravery to confront that before it is too late for anything to be taken back, or raised, discussed, and dealt with.
Everything Karla says is dismissed hushed, or talked over by Marcie. In contrast, the sphinx-like Geena--lying there, eyes closed, serenely facing us--makes clear is how proud she is of Don, and how much she loves him.
It is a meagre, somewhat thankless part, and Sydney deserves an award for simple, mute endurance, as well her inevitably show-stealing interjections.
Feiffer makes us see there is a reason to her vitriol too, and ultimately with Don, Marcie reaches a catharsis, as does Don himself. But will, can, Karla accept him as a possible mate? Death eventually makes its presence felt on the ward (it won't be revealed here how).
In the play's relatively short timespan its characters chew over intimacy, mortality, love, and life. No laugh is easy, no tear elicited manipulatively--even when an episode of Law and Order makes a late appearance to underscore the depth of an earlier speech.
There is, Feiffer shows us, life in death, and death in life--and ultimately the need to if not forgive, then at least find a peace with those closest to us. This may well prove to be the first cancer ward you won't want to leave.