City Theatre’s dynamic production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City may not be for the faint of heart, but it is about the faint of heart.
This mounting marks the opening of City’s 43rd season and the Pittsburgh premiere of Halley Feiffer’s fizzy and caustic comedy. Unfortunately, these forces are at war here. Fortunately, the impeccable set design, quartet of wonderful performances, and precise direction that City Theatre brings to the table overpower Feiffer’s funny albeit inert script.
Four characters—a mother, her daughter, another mother, and her son—sit or lay in a hospital room aggressively, vulgarly, silently, and desperately in search of release.
A young aspiring comedian named Karla (a sweet and salty Jenni Putney) furiously scribbles in a notebook as her mother snores alongside her tethered to the hospital bed by an IV and nose cannula. Marcie (Helena Ruoti, not letting her limited mobility get in the way of her excellent comedic timing) remains asleep through her daughter’s entire rundown of a new bit she wants to incorporate into her act.
I won’t go into specifics of the bit because its controversial content clearly lost a lot of audience members right off the bat. Luckily, the humor in the play only improves from this low point on.
Middle-aged, disheveled Don (Tim McGeever) enters halfway through Karla’s impromptu rehearsal and is horrified by the indelicate nature of her jokes. But he too is tethered to this room by his own ailing mother Geena (Kendra McLaughlin), who is in much more dire condition than Marcie, and by the dissolution of his family thanks to his wife’s desire to leave him and his son’s penchant for stealing money from his bank account.
Unlikely as it may seem, tech multi-millionaire pessimist Don and down-on-her-luck pessimist Karla share far more than a pair of sick mothers. They form a messy, unorthodox bond that will have you rooting for them against all the imaginary odds they try to put in their own way. It’s as much a love story between those two people as it between them and their mothers and between them and themselves.
If you don’t know playwright Halley Feiffer’s name, it’s not for lack of trying on her part. She and this play, in particular, have been taking the theatre scene across the country by storm in recent years.
Off-Broadway company MCC Theatre staged the world premiere of A Funny Thing Happened… in the spring of 2016. As you can imagine, it wasn’t difficult for word of mouth for a play with a title that long to spread fast. On the momentum of that successful New York run (including the coveted designation of New York Times Critic’s Pick), A Funny Thing Happened… made its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse (starring Feiffer in the lead role) this fall.
While I found A Funny Thing Happened… to be somewhat of a disappointment as a script, I was not immune to its crowd-pleasing qualities. Framed by a rocky start and an unsatisfying ending, it has lots of laughs and a few moments of genuine emotional impact to offer. Director Joshua Kahan Brody gets the most of the comedy and pathos eliciting the best kinds of chuckles and tears, those that sneak up on you.
The first interaction between Don and Karla is less meet-cute and more hilarious sliding-curtains farce. Brody knew just when to make the chemistry between the characters combust and when to let it mellow out.
What’s missing on the page is a logical arc outside of the inevitable tragic fate that befalls characters waiting for tragedy in a cancer ward.
While still mostly a mystery, we learn the most about Don and how his choices have landed him here wearing sweatpants and a ripped jacket, despite his exorbitant wealth. Tim McGeever’s defeated body language lays it all out for us before Don even has a chance to explain his plight. His charming and adorkable performance is the big, beating heart of this show. When Don does eventually let his walls down for Karla, it feels like he’s entrusting his own big, beating heart to all of us as well.
If you have to sit in a hospital room while your loved one’s health deteriorates, there’s probably no better companion than Don. That is entirely a credit to McGeever’s remarkable work.
If hospitals do make you uncomfortable, you’re still in for a treat with scenic designer Tony Ferrieri’s uncanny realization of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. From the dry erase boards listing the nurses on duty (stage hands cleverly costumed in scrubs by Michael Montgomery) to the various pieces of hospital equipment, there is not a single detail overlooked here.
Ferrieri simultaneously grounds City Theatre’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City and allows it to fly.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City runs through October 15. For more information, click here.
Photos by Kristi Jan Hoover.