Interview: Jacqueline Sydney Discusses Her Unique Role in A FUNNY THING..., The Phenomenal Cast and Much More

By: Jun. 30, 2016
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Jacqueline Sydney has a very unique role in Halley Feiffer's new play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City- she has her eyes closed and lies in a hospital bed for the entire performance. Sydney has been working on this play for several year alongside Feiffer and now the hit new play is closing this Sunday at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St New York, NY 10014).

In A FUNNY THING..., a foul-mouthed twenty-something comedian and a middle-aged man embroiled in a nasty divorce are brought together unexpectedly when their cancer-stricken mothers become roommates in the hospital. Together, this unlikely duo must negotiate some of life's biggest challenges... while making some of the world's most inappropriate jokes. Can these two very lost people learn to laugh through their pain and lean on each other when all they really want to do is run away?

Before closing night on Sunday, Jacqueline Sydney sat down with BroadwayWorld to chat about her unique role, the phenomenal cast assembled on stage and everything she will miss about performing A FUNNY THING... night after night.

Check out the full interview below!

Can you tell us what A FUNNY THING... is about?

A FUNNY THING... is about two people who meet in the hospital rooms of their mothers. I play one of the mothers, and I'm at the last stage of a seven-year battle with ovarian cancer. And Don is my son- a 40 year old tech entrepreneur. Carla is a stand-up comedian around 30 and her mother has just been diagnosed with early stage ovarian cancer. They meet while she's practicing her routine and Don comes to visit me and she doesn't know he's there. It's not a very fun beginning for them, but eventually throughout the play they get to know each other and deal with the emotional, irreverent, painful, funny, joyful and uncomfortable experiences that they have with their own parents. They learn to heal each other actually.

How long have you been working on developing this role?

Well, three years ago, Halley [Feiffer], who I had worked with just developing another play a few years before that, contacted me and said that she had a role that I might be right for. They were doing a one night reading and would I be interested. It's a very special role. It's a largely silent role. I appear comatose throughout the entire play. So, I read the script and I thought that this would be a hoot to try and develop. I did the one night reading and they loved it. Bless her heart. Talk about a marvelous human beinG. Halley liked me so much that all through the past two years, she's brought me along with her... to the point where I have worked on this play with four different directors and each one had to meet me and see my work. But Halley was instrumental in having me cast in this. I can't thank her enough. I've enjoyed this role. It's so magnificent because all I do is hear the play.

When we did a workshop of it in September, Trip Cullman... what a magnificent director he is, he asked if I'd be willing to shave my head. I said, "Well, let me talk to my agent." I'm 62 years old. I'm not going to be asked to do the young ingénues anymore. So, I shaved my head and MCC was really, really glorious about getting me a wig to wear during the day. It's been wonderful to walk around with no hair. I'm telling you, you have no idea the freedom it's and also the awful things people do. It's a lesson in learning to respect someone else's privacy. People have come to me and want to know if I'm in recovery as if my medical condition is any of their business. It's like touching a pregnant woman's belly without permission.

In the show, you are completely silent and have your eyes closed. What's it like hearing the play night after night?

It's glorious because I am not only listening. It's complete improv for me. I participate in everything that is going on on stage verbally, except nobody hear's me. It's wonderful. I have conversations with them. There are parts in the play where I have worked out with the director and Erik [Lochtefeld], who plays my son, where I can't move or really have to be silent or else someone else's joke won't land. It has been absolutely glorious because Trip Cullman has given me permission to participate that way. He noticed during rehearsals that I was slightly reacting and he kept saying, "Go further. Go further. Go further." And I said, "I'm really terrified of pulling focus." And he looked at me and said, "Don't worry, I'll stop you." And he did a couple of times. That's the collaboration I love.

Trip Cullman is magnificently fun. Any direction he's going to give you that's a negative, he always cages in humor. And so it doesn't feel like, "Oh my God, I'm the worst actor in the world." It's really a great time. I really do like listening and not seeing. It has opened up a whole different world for me. I have never had to do this before, where I am completely sightless on stage. It's marvelous. So I think things are happening that aren't happening. I actually saw the sizzle reel that I have and it shows the wonderful Erik doing something and I went "Oh my God I never knew he did that!" It's awesome.

The cast for this play is just phenomenal. What has it been like working with all of them?

Isn't it amazing? Lisa Emery is a grand dame of theater. I've admired her work for years. I saw her in MARJORIE PRIME. She is magnificent and not only that, she's become my sister woman, best friend. It has really been wonderful to have someone in my own age range. Plus, because we are on stage 15 minutes before the play opens, there is this whole ritual we have even though we aren't speaking to each other. It's quite a hoot.

Erik Lochtefeld is one of the most innovative, fantastic actors I have ever worked with. I gave him the opportunity to play with me and as the five week rehearsal period went on, his relationship to me just grew and grew. I've seen him take direction, turn on a dime and always fulfill it 100% more than I believe the director intended. It has been remarkable to watch him.

And my girlfriend Beth Behrs is wonderful, funny, exuberant, hardest working woman in the business, let me tell you. She works her little butt off up there every night, in rehearsal, always prepared, just fun to hang out with. Lisa, Beth and I share a dressing room and we just have the time of our lives. She is SO good in this. She has been absolutely wonderful. She of course has theater experience on the West Coast, but not in New York and she has taken to it like a fish in water. It's just so wonderful to hear her every night and offstage it has just been a hoot to hang out with her. She's so unassuming and down to Earth. She's what I call "A New York Actor" and she's just one of us. It's awesome.

You are approaching your final performance on Sunday, what are you going to miss most?

I'm so sad we are closing on Sunday. It's been three years for me. There are several things I'm going to miss about A FUNNY THING... I'm going to miss the people, the crew, who are a bunch of really fine folks to hang out with. I've been with these people for three months now. I'm going to miss this play, which is about the real human condition, with a sense of humor. We aren't all "nicey, nicey." The people's emotions are sloppy and I really do feel that the audience and certainly me... I identify with this play. It's also one of those jobs where I skip to work singing every day. That's kind of rare to really enjoy something so much.

I'm also just going to miss actually doing it. Actually crawling into bed, being hooked up to the IV on stage and just the camaraderie with these people. And just Halley's magnificent play. It's really a team. Believe it or not, there is no starry ego involved in this, that's what is really wonderful and joyful. It really is theater at its best.

Jacqueline Sydney (Geena). Dear Harvey (FringeNYC Outstanding Ensemble Award), Money, Love, and Shame! (Target Margin), Satan In High Heels (TOSOS II), The Firebird (Planet Connections), Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (Film Forum), The Kitchen Table (NYIT Nomination Best Featured Actress), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City (Clurman Lab & others) The Secret Garden (APAC), Blood Grass (NY & Provincetown), The Family Room(Ethos), And Sophie Comes Too (Fringe & Fringe Encore), The Children's Hour (APAC), Machinal (Ohio Theatre). Film: Eleanor, Filmic Achievement, Uncle Stephanie, Confess. Web Series: "Simpatico," "Double Leche."

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