Inventive stagecraft, watchable stars, a vague, artsy script: In his New York debut, playwright Noah Diaz arguably has a story he wants to tell about caregiving and the psychological effects of illness. But his preference for an idiosyncratic style of storytelling renders “You Will Get Sick” largely indecipherable, although the production is at times entertaining, thanks largely to Linda Lavin and Daniel K. Isaac’s performances, and director Sam Pinkleton’s theatrical effects.
Before the play begins, we are greeted in the lobby with leaflets covering the walls that offer $20 to call the phone number in the little tabs below. “I Need To Tell You Something I’m Not Ready To Tell Anyone I Know”
On stage, Linda Lavin, who is portraying Callan, an aspiring actress, has spotted one of those leaflet on a telephone pole, and calls the number. She reaches the character portrayed by Daniel K. Isaac (who is not given a name; he is listed in the playbill as #1. The other four characters are listed as #2 through #5, but they portray multiple characters, most of them with names,) Callan listens to his story (which the audience doesn’t hear at first), and he mails her a check for $100.
But he forgot to sign it, so she telephones him again to ask him to sign the check because she needs the money. He says he’ll give her cash instead. They agree to meet.
Afterwards, she becomes his de facto caregiver, performing a series of tasks for him for a negotiated fee: For $60, she accompanies him to get a wheelchair. For $50 and his agreeing to serve as the substitute for her scene partner in her acting class that night, she tells his sister Polly (Marinda Anderson) that he’s sick. At one point, she wipes the sweat off his forehead with her sleeve, and says: “On the house.”
These moments, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes just weird, are almost plausible, even though the characters speak in short sentences, usually unfinished, and another actor (Dario Ladani Sanchez) talks into a microphone providing narrative details, often unnecessary. (“you hold the phone to your shoulder…it slips.”)
But they compete with a brief scene of a man (Nate Miller) selling bird insurance – insurance against getting eaten by a big bird – and frequent subsequent mentions of menacing big birds… and hay, and the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Callan wants to play Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie that may “explain” most of the fanciful allusions — the hay is stuffed in #1’s shirt, as if he’s a scarecrow, who’s the enemy of large birds. The scenic design, attributed to “dots,” is dark and dreary, like a cage or a prison, until it suddenly opens up to an awesome scene of a wheat field that could be….back home in Kansas.
These Oz allusions are read easily enough as metaphors connected to illness — feeling in a foreign land, wanting to go home. They exist in tandem with the references we get to the Isaac character’s physical paralysis and cognitive decline, most of them hazy. His unnamed condition is most clearly described (but not fully explained) when Callan uses what he said to her as a monologue for her auditions, which is when the audience first hears it (“I started falling last month. My legs would go numb….”) But are the metaphors really illuminating?
Linda Lavin, with her great comic timing, and Daniel K. Isaac, with his expressive skills clearly communicating confusion and suffering, make the most of their underwritten characters. I could see somebody defending “You Will Get Sick” as the work of a new voice in the theater – one that will take time to get used to.
But in that scene where Callan accompanies him to the medical supply store to buy a wheelchair and cane, he runs into a coworker Margot (Marinda Anderson again.) Margot just assumes he’s there in the store, as she is, for an elderly parent, rather than for himself.
This would be a poignant moment. But the playwright goes further: Margot inquires about his boyfriend, Liam, and thereby learns that they’ve broken up. She says that’s a good thing. “I think you dodged a bullet.” – because he shouldn’t have to take care of sick Liam
“All of that time you had to take off to take care of him? Imagine doing that for the rest of your life…”
“Well, he’s okay now, so …”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. That kind of sick stays with you’’
He shouldn’t have to take care of Liam, Margot continues, the way he took care of his sick brother Patrick (she gets his name wrong and calls him Patton.) – who’s dead. Suddenly, #1 starts to cry.
This scene gives us way too much information at once (almost all of which is new to us), although all still vague, and makes Margot something closer to monstrous rather than merely insensitive. It is one of the few strictly realistic scenes in the play, and it struck me as poorly done. This made me wonder whether all those mannered metaphors, the absurdist touches, were facile substitutes for the hard work of genuine insight – and whether “You Will Be Sick” was less the work of a groundbreaking new voice than of an inexperienced writer.
You Will Get Sick
Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater through December 11, 2022
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $69 – $109
Written by Noah Diaz
Directed by Sam Pinkleton
Scenic design by dots, costume design by Michael Krass and Alicia Austin, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Lee Kinney, hair design by Tommy Kurzman, illusions by Skylar Fox, original music by Daniel Kluger
Cast: Marinda Anderson as 3, Daniel K. Isaac as 1, Linda Lavin as 2, Nate Miller as 4, Dario Ladani Sanchez as 5.