Don and Karla meet because their mothers share a room in a cancer hospital, in Halley Feiffer’s bawdy and tender new play, which has two attention-grabbing aspects to it:
- Its title is 22 words long — “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City.” This barely fits a Tweet or the playbill or the marquee at the Lucille Lortel.
- It marks the first time I know of that a mother and daughter have written two separate plays evidently inspired by the same real-life event.
Karla (Beth Behrs from the TV series “2 Broke Girls”) is a none-too-successful standup comic in her 20s, whom we first see trying out an explicitly raunchy joke for her mother Marcie (Lisa Emery) who is on her hospital bed, fast asleep.
As she plays around with the joke, trying out different versions of the joke involving “rape” and “vibrator,” she is unaware that Don (Erik Lochtefeld), a sloppily dressed man in his 40’s, has slipped into a chair on the other side of the curtain, sitting next to his mother Geena (Jacqueline Sydney), who is also asleep in her bed. Don is shocked at Karla’s language in the presence of two ill women and tells her off.
“You know what? You don’t know anything about me OR my mom,” Karla snaps back.
Don launches into a long tirade that ends “…all your mom is now is cancer. “
Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged
That their relationship evolves is hardly a spoiler; we’re expecting it. How it does so, luckily, avoids treacle and cliché. There are no great revelations or glorious resolutions, no startling insights, but the path we see them taking as the play unfolds, and the past that we learn along the way, feels largely credible, and even offers some glimpse into an increasingly common situation:
“Sometimes I wish she would just die.”
“I don’t really mean that.”
“A Funny Thing Happened etc.” provides a few modest surprises, as well as a distinctly immodest (i.e. raunchy) scene that makes “A Funny Thing Happened…” inappropriate for children. There is much humor in the play; what works best is what feels earned rather than imposed. Trip Cullman directs at a brisk pace, getting fine, honest performances out of the four-member cast, even the role of Geena, head shaved and mostly sleeping.
Halley Feiffer, an actress and playwright who is the daughter of cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, previously wrote “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” a play about an actress whose sole aim in life is making her famous and difficult playwright father proud. Halley Feiffer’s mother is Jenny Allen, a journalist and humorist whose 2009 play, “I Got Sick Then I Got Better,” was a monologue she performed about the repercussions of her diagnosis and treatment for ovarian cancer. Much of “A Funny Thing Happened…” focuses on the testy relationship between Karla and her cancer-stricken mother, and their very tentative rapprochement. Not every playwright uses their parents as their inspiration so obviously and publicly…and so fruitfully.
The funny thing that happens at “A Funny Thing Happened…” — excuse me for phrasing this in the sort of schmaltzy way that the characters would reject — is not just laughs, but life.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theater
Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman.
Scenic Design Lauren Helpern
Costumes Kaye Voyce
Lights Matthew Richards
Sound Darron L West
Cast: Beth Behrs, Lisa Emery, Erik Lochtefeld Jacqueline Sydney.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $35 to $99
A Funny Thing is scheduled to run through July 3.