Fascinating characters, death and the greatest oral sex scene to ever be performed on stage are just a few of the reasons I find myself preparing this “counter” review - just in case. You see, here at Atl Stage Review we love to have plays reviewed by more than one critic. I am writing this out of fear that the wonderfully tough Sandra Blazynski - who assigned herself this play to review - will simply HATE this mesmeric 90 minute intermission-less one-act by Halley Feiffer - yes, THAT Feiffer - and so I must have a response prepared.
Cancer is certainly well worn territory on stage and film. As is pitch black humor used to explore it. Margaret Edson’s W;T quick comes to mind, and look, it’s probably, technically, better writing. It’s superb, layered, and is as much about the simple reality that we sometimes lose control of our lives before the ultimate loss that death brings. But the characters in “A Funny Thing Happened…” are so vibrant and alive, the writing so plucky and unpolished in a brilliantly good way - that I simply could not restrain myself from falling in love with it.
At the center is Karla, a struggling stand up whom we meet working new jokes for her act while her mom rests from the latest round of chemo. She is lonely, horny, and not afraid to to joke about being single so long that she is having sex dreams about her vibrator. She can be titanium tough, borderline obnoxiously neurotic and profoundly armored. All that, along with her biting wit is what we love about her - and Rebecca Robles as Karla captures it all pretty darn close to brilliantly. Her work is restrained but alive and at same time most often achingly honest. Deeply felt, but never on display - she is the type of actor who leaves us - the audience - room to come to her - a speciality she had on in full display in David Harrower’s “Blackbird” as well. I suspect she won’t spend too long here and will find herself in the midst of a TV and/or film career. Selfishly, I hope not. But, I mean, not really. Please go make a shit ton of money. Just promise you will come back and continue to produce and act? Please and Thank you? Amen.
She is backed up, thankfully, by one of the strongest ensembles I have seen in Atlanta. Not just for one of the smaller theatre companies here in town - but for any of them. Douglas Dickerman’s stuttering and lost Don - whose dying mother share’s the room with Karla’s - is played wonderfully by Ellen McQueen. Scrappy, unyielding and verbally abusive - but we never lose sight of her humanity - quite the trick for an actor to pull off. In several years down the road she will be a brilliant Violet in Lett’s August: Osage County. Even Virginia Kirby in the somewhat thankless role as Don’s very ill mom, Geena, nails it effortlessly. (Full Disclosure: Virginia was a student some time back. I am just thrilled to watch her continual growth. But anyone who knows me - knows I would not hold back if she she sucked.)
Calibrating a performance for the specific venue has become it’s own bit of craft making and these actors do it expertly - in a town where some of the performances are theatrical and over the top when they needn’t be. Acting has changed, and the flood of uber realism and naturalism in film has made it’s way down (or is it up?) to theatrical performance as well, particularly when a production is doing anything remotely in the vein of realism.
Jennifer Silver directs with a steady and trusting hand and while I suspect she has not said anything particularly new with her take on this script - she has still served it exceptionally well. This is a script that can easily veer, crash and get stuck in the mud of sentimentality. There is absolutely nothing sentimental about this production - but it’s as human as it can get. When two words, “I’m scared” - kick you squarely in the nuts without the least bit of trying - a production is on it’s way to something great. Jonathan Fries simple, but warm, but cold, but-that-side-is really-the-same-as-the-other-side- but-not - set captures just about every depressing detail of the trying too hard to be cheery hospital room where those who soon might die are often placed.
I have had the strangely beautiful opportunity to watch a few family member’s die. It’s the waiting that becomes the challenge, that tears our hearts open to a vulnerable place we avoid as much as possible in our day to day life. Feiffer’s script and this cast and crew somehow capture that. It’s a place where absolutely nothing and absolutely everything can coexist and happen at the same time - a bit of love, a dash of redemption, some sex and yes, death.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City
by Halley Feiffer
Venue: Pinch 'N' Ouch Theatre
Show Dates: May 4-20, 2018
Director: Jennifer Silver
Cast: Douglas Dickermanas, Ellen McQueen, Rebeca Robles, Virginia Kirby