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Review: A FUNNY THING Happened in a Relatively Short Play with the Unspeakably Long Title

Review: A FUNNY THING Happened in a Relatively Short Play with the Unspeakably Long Title

A solid ensemble triumphs with a shockingly humorous take on terminal illness.

Death is a funny thing. In a current staging of an unusual play, mortality is the illogical epiphany that seizes the day thanks to a bold experiment by Next Stage Theatre Southwest.

I will mention the title only once, and I believe you'll agree: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE ONCOLOGIC UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY is not only long but vainglorious and sadistic. Note that I utter those words with my tongue firmly in cheek.

(On that gem of a tongue-twister alone, I could name a few actors who might take a long hour to get off-book.)

As it turns out, it isn't what happens on the way to the hospital that creates provocative theater. Rather, it's in the confines of a double room where an audience becomes privy to a carnal exposé and a rhetorical assault of shocking veracity.

As a comedy, A FUNNY THING is a disturbing piece that regales nonetheless. Bolstered by a deeply flawed cast of characters, Halley Feiffer writes an impulsive commentary as though she's transcribing a psychoanalytic thesis on the ID.

Well, maybe not quite. But you get the idea. The play is not for the squeamish, but give it time to marinate in the reciprocal authenticity of a committed ensemble; there, you're likely to find a simple lesson in sweet surrender.

Indeed we know better than to let the maze of a title trip us. The script delivers catchy taglines, the sort of jokes that land with artful brevity (sorry, I'm not about to quip an example). Despite a loquacious bent, playwright Halley Feiffer is no stranger to the impact of the short form; after all, her father is the esteemed cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

Not to digress, but Ms. Feiffer's play might have resonated favorably with the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the iconic death-and-dying expert who articulated the predictable stages in the waning days of a terminal patient. To Kubler-Ross, it's a blurry thin line between the profane and the sacred. She was known to have laughed as she raged through her own dying process.

Mark Klugheit directs this vulgar and sterling jewel of a play with astonishing subtlety and tact. A FUNNY THING is an 85-minute incursion into a crude and sensitive territory most of us would best avoid on any given day. It takes a steady yet flexible hand at the helm to allow seasoned actors to manifest their deep work.

So here we are with a loud reminder of our mortal limits - not to mention the "acceptable" limits of a public joke and a daring sexual encounter - as Ms. Feiffer regards our presumed taboos with a shrewd riposte. I'm reminded of H.G. Wells' famous denouncement of the "irreverent laugh," man's presumed default from the paucity of insight into the natural order of things.

Review: A FUNNY THING Happened in a Relatively Short Play with the Unspeakably Long Title

Yet, in the playwright's judgment, irreverence is a natural byproduct of bottled outrage. There's no place in a sane world to land a good joke about terminal cancer - but now and then, wisdom takes the form of a middle finger, and with that comes a wink of personal advantage. Halley Feiffer attempts to reveal the unpredictable guffaw on the other side of grief; you just have to face the uglies head-on.

Mr. Klugheit has the good fortune of a solid cast. At rise: On one side of a hospital room defined by a sliding curtain and walls of nauseating pink, we find Karla brandishing her pen and notebook, sitting next to her sleeping, sick mother. Karla is a young comedian who passes her time in the hospital by polishing a new standup routine. Marcie, her mother, wakes up intermittently to send Karla on a quick errand. She'll aim a disparaging remark or two at Karla before falling back to sleep. We sense a fraught history between mother and daughter.

Simply put, Samantha Cormier plays Karla with unbridled tawdriness, flavored with the poignant desperation of a little girl who yearns for validation. They are consistent, nuanced attributes local theater fans have come to expect from, who aces that number from lights up.

Susan Arnold is a terrific Marcie who wields the brunt of her work in laconic stillness. Though she says very little, it's measured speech with a loaded subtext. Marcie has an ax to grind, and it's sharp enough to keep you at bay.

The most apparent revelation here is Ryan Parker Knox, who renders Don with a layered mix of tacit doggedness and anemic charm. It's safe to assume that Don is unlike any classic male model this fine actor has done at The Rogue Theatre. Parker Knox's Don is clumsy and unkempt, gifted with an endearing reluctance to reveal his good nature, and buoyed by the sheer absence of masculine ego. At 40-something, Don is a retired tech multimillionaire who freely gives money to a good cause. He is a devoted son to a dying Geena (Pat Timm), whose minimal presence on the other side of the room belies her considerable impact on Don's trajectory.

Review: A FUNNY THING Happened in a Relatively Short Play with the Unspeakably Long Title

It's an intense flurry of emotional upheavals, but a familiar Deux ex Machina resolves Halley Feiffer's protracted shock treatment. The inverse payoff from the playwright's perceived incivility is a stirring display of human tenderness, blunting the verbal bruises between vulnerable folks who, at their core, are crying out for unconditional acceptance.

It brings us to what we know to be the playwright's investment: Despite the backdrop of their mothers' looming demise, we are comforted by the most improbable love story between Karla and Don.

The upshot from the mounting agitation is a credible tableau of ordinary folks absolving each other of their shortcomings. While the Angel of Death looms, one person is armed and ready for a raunchy fight to the finish, while a blooming love interest breeds new life.

A FUNNY THING is a modern play that dabbles in the age-old propensity for the extreme. It dispenses with the usual finesse in favor of a stark blow to the psyche. If we are to subscribe to John von Düffel's approach to doing theatre in a post-postmodern world, we need more plays with "less art, more substance."

A FUNNY THING...plays through December 4, 2022, at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre.

Photo credit: Nicci Radhe

For tickets, call or text 520-907-7209

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From This Author - Robert Encila-Celdran

Born and raised in the Philippines, Robert Encila-Celdran resides in Tucson, Arizona where he works as a full-time theatre educator. A Fine Arts scholar from the University of Arizona, he f... (read more about this author)


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