Formula Fuels A Funny Thing
By Patrick Hurley
A funny thing happens when derivative contrivance fuels a play’s engine; namely, compulsory catharsis drawn from formulaic content, wherein a distrait attempt to entwine pathos with dark humor simply can’t rise above its own prosaicisms because of the Rom-Com insistence of containing the whole thing as a neatly packaged, sugary-sweet trifle.
Such is the fate of Halley Feiffer’s new play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecological Oncology Unit at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, playing now at The Geffen Playhouse, it falls too readily into the formulaic romantic comedy genre.
Set in a double hospital room, Karla (Halley Feiffer) is a stand-up comedian, who comes to visit her mother Marcie (JoBeth Williams), who is battling cancer. Marcie is unconscious for most of the first half of the play. On the other side of the room, on the other side of the curtain divider, sleeps Geena (Eileen T’Kaye), a woman dying of cancer. Geena’s son Don (Jason Butler Harner) is visiting her when he overhears Karla going through some of her stand-up material to her unconscious mother. Don expresses disapproval at her choice of content, and soon the two have a sort of battle of wits while still on either side of the respective curtain. The curtain began as a device that was used as a barrier between these two–a sort of 21st Century homage to It Happened One Night. And some of the strongest moments in the play happened when these two characters understood that they couldn’t be seen by the other. But alas, it was only a momentary device that soon gave way to the face-to-face encounter that would lead to a sort-of friendship that leads to a sort-of romance that leads to a sort-of happy ending. Not much novelty going on here.
Where novelty wants to creep in, however, is in the dark humor. Fieffer clearly embraces irreverence. She’s written a play that makes jokes about things we’re not supposed to make jokes about, things like cancer and rape, things that shows like South Park have been using for laughs for decades now. She has also written a sex scene that is clearly meant for shock value, at the sacrifice of authenticity. Therefore, the shock value of it throws verisimilitude out the window, and the world breaks. When a playwright breaks the world she’s created, and then goes back to it as it was, we have to surmise that the breaking point wasn’t integral to the plot and was added for another reason. In the case of this play, going for laughs seems to be the obvious reason.
Director Trip Cullman keeps the stage brightly lit and the energy up, and humor is always the go-to. “Find the bit” could be the mantra of the first 70 minutes of this 80- minute play. Exaggerated facial expressions, large emotional outbursts, and, in the case of one of the characters, monotone monologuing that perhaps perfectly captures the narcissistic apathy of a spoiled millennial, but also just prompts the audience to tune out. So that when we get to the emotional moments near the end, they haven’t been earned.
In the end, the play raises more questions than its protracted title does. Why cancer? Why is it set in a cancer ward? Why isn’t Geena in hospice? Why does Don put up with Karla? Why does Karla like Don? Why is Geena not an offstage character? What is the play saying about mother/daughter relationships? Is it saying something about mother/daughter relationships? Is the whole thing trying to be a new kind of romantic comedy? Who are these people? Why do we care? Perhaps these are the questions of an embittered theatergoer who wants more from a production, but that doesn’t negate the fact that this play raises questions and then doesn’t go deep enough to answer them.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecological Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City
By Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets are Available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org. Fees may apply.
Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public 30 minutes before show time at the box office. $35.00 General / $10.00 Student