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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 7, 2016


Beth Behrs, Lisa Emery, Jacqueline Sydney, and Erik Lochtefeld
Photo by Matthew Murphy

If laughter really is the best medicine, the afflicted looking for the next, best miracle cure are well advised to stay away from the Lucille Lortel Theatre. That's where the MCC Theater production of Halley Feiffer's new play just opened, possessing the goal of uniting and unifying the ostensibly incompatible concepts of cackles and chemotherapy, but is run over by an ambulance before it gets anywhere close. As a result, the only thing about this play that's truly funny or insightful is its title, which is (deep breath) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City.

For the sake of argument, let's play along. Karla (Beth Behrs) is at the bedside of her mother, Marcie (Lisa Emery), who's... Oh, come on, you can figure out this part. Anyway, Karla is a stand-up comedian, and is "perfecting" some new bits for her act. "Like, I could—oh, I dunno, this is all just improve," she says to her silent sleeping mother, "but like I could be like, 'Instead of a strong, chiseled, oiled-up man throwing open my bedroom door and raping me? I just have visions of my vibrator standing in the archway, backlit by silvery moonlight, sometimes wearing a fedora." (It actually goes on from there, but that's the printable part.)

Karla can't see what's going on behind the curtain separating her mom from the hospital room's other patient, Geena (Jacqueline Sydney), she doesn't see a tall man (Erik Lochtefeld) come in to spend time with Geena. So of course she doesn't know that he's overhearing her act. And you probably can't guess how he, or anyone in that situation, would react!

Yes, Karla and the man, named Don (and, naturally, Geena's son), end up bonding, in part because Karla needs to—her mother, though technically supportive, is brusque and has seldom been what her daughter needed—and in part because, well, what else would ever happen in a play like this? The action (a term I use quite loosely) putters around until the expected, or several variations on it, occurs, and things reach a sufficiently tidy arbitrary point to collapse back into the theatrical ether.

There are moments along the way that almost qualify as entertaining, such as a particularly, um, vivid encounter between two people in the bathroom that's heard more than it's seen. And there are occasional jokes that earn, perhaps, a mild chuckle. (Don, after Karla complains about his Tweety Bird underwear upon yanking off his pants during a scuffle: "When your mother's been dying for seven years, you sort of stop noticing what kind of boxers you're wearing, okay?" Karla, ever compassionate: "That still doesn't explain the sweatpants.")

Feiffer is certainly going for more, though, or at least something else; she drops enough details of family strife between Karla and Marcie and between Don and his estranged son, and class also comes to play a role (Don retired after making countless millions selling his wedding-website startup, Karla has zilch). It's clear that she wants to use comedy as the vehicle for exploring more serious, in this case literally life-and-death issues, and all the elements to make that work are, to some degree or another, present.

As with her previous Off-Broadway play, I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard, however, the tone and the execution become so jumbled and discombobulated that any genuine meaning is lost. Comedy and tragedy can coexist—one could argue, quite convincingly, that they must—but if they don't occupy the same coherent universe and share a perspective on what's unfolding around them, each becomes reluctant, if not unable, to respond as only it can. That kinship between the genres is what's missing here, and without it, you can neither laugh nor cry—all you can do is watch and wait, in hopes it will eventually sort itself out. (Spoiler: It doesn't.)

On Lauren Helpern's striking hospital set (which is well lighted by Matthew Richards), Trip Cullman has directed brightly but broadly—think Carol Burnett on speed—and the actors struggle to reach whatever ideal he and Feiffer have set. Behrs, in particular, composing her performance mostly of gaping grimaces that would look overdone from the last row of a football stadium, oversells everything except Karla's inner anguish, which is scarcely visible and might make the character more palatable. Emery works strenuously to make a complete woman out of the shreds of Marcie she's been given (no small feat given she never leaves her bed), but can't do it; Lochtefeld, with fewer pieces to arrange, does slightly better, but is still obviously "acting" rather than inhabiting Don, who, in most plays, wouldn't be that tough to nail down.

Sydney, for her part, is tasked primarily with reacting and not reacting through a combination of blinks, head turns, and sheet shuffles—and they're just about all mesmerizing. Not because she's doing anything special, but because she isn't: Her Geena is simply living (or rather dying), while everyone else is otherwise, less productively engaged. And did I mention she only speaks two lines? Given most of the words we hear, it's not hard to posit that's why Sydney is so successful. Really, though, it's just an embodiment of the classic theatrical mantra that less is more, something Feiffer would do splendidly to remember more often than she does, from that endless title on down.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City
Through July 3
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix


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