A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Finborough Theatre: ‘ecstatically indelicate humour’
Sarah Gibbs reviews A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, a new and painfully humorous play by Halley Feiffer.
Toward the conclusion of Bethany Pitts’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, patient Marcie (Kristin Milward) declares, “I can make cancer jokes because I have cancer. Like Jews can make Jewish jokes.” The fraternity of “Cancer Comedians,” however, does extend to one non-sufferer: playwright Halley Feiffer. Like stand-up performers whose routines dwell on the politics of their cultural or sexual identities, Feiffer mines the realm of “unsayables”—in this case, around parental love and death—for comedy gold. It’s a pity that the constraints of the “illness narrative” limit the play’s action.
The show begins in a room in the titular cancer center. Two women in late middle-age lie in neighbouring hospital beds separated by a curtain. Karla (Cariad Lloyd) sits next to her sleeping mother, Marcie. Karla is an aspiring comedian, and is practicing her “bits.” “What do you think about this one, Mom?” she asks. “‘I’ve been single for so long, I’ve started having wet dreams about my vibrator.’” Unbeknownst to Karla, the priggish Don (Rob Crouch), whose mother (Cara Chase) is in the adjacent bed, has just entered, and listens in abject horror as she elaborates a vibrator rape fantasy. The dynamics between the odd couple carers, as well as complicated relationships with their respective parents, drive the play’s action, and provide the emotional grounding for its ecstatically indelicate humour.
Pitts’s staging is highly effective. The room’s dividing curtain is sometimes a wall, sometimes a permeable membrane; most often it is the line of taste and decorum that the characters continually transgress. The mothers, who both offspring and audience assume are asleep, occasionally interject, to great effect. The womens’ position successfully evokes the manner in which the well often speak around and above the ill, making them somehow less than subjects.
Milward gives a standout performance as a woman alienated from one daughter and haunted by another. Lloyd and Crouch have excellent chemistry, and capitalize on their characters’ differences in age, politics, class, and even size. While the comedic set pieces fully deliver—an interrogation about the colour palette in Don’s luxurious apartment ends with Karla yelling, “How seafoam is it?!”—the actors are not served by the emotional intensity of the opening scenes; a play concerning death and familial trauma will necessarily escalate as the action progresses, and the cast often has nowhere to go. The narrative’s possible destinations are similarly limited.
There’s a reason that Lifetime Network movies about cancer are often indistinguishable. Despite Feiffer’s black humour and zany characters, she is hobbled by the fact that, in suffering and grief, we are all the same. The universality of the experience gives works on the theme sentimental heft, but restricts originality. The decline in energy towards the play’s conclusion testifies to the drawbacks of the form. Emotional satisfaction demands cliché, and so does violence to art. As I left the theatre, I reflected that, if said Network made a Magic Eight Ball, the only answers it would offer would be “There will be a deathbed reconciliation” or “There will be a graveside reconciliation.” Though the joke may be coarse, I’ve no doubt the characters in A Funny Thing Happened would appreciate it.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at the Finborough Theatre until the 27th October, 2018.
Feature photograph: James O Jenkins