BWW Review: Dying is Easy, Comedy Hard at City Theatre's A FUNNY THING...
One of the most popular recent television genres is the sadcom, serialized (and frequently bleak and depressing) dramas interspersed with comedy. "If it's half an hour, it's comedy; if it's an hour, it's drama," goes the standard, albeit reductive, line of demarcation. Thus, it's something of a compliment to say that Halley Feiffer's play, fully titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, feels like the double-length pilot episode to a really promising new premium-cable program, complete with three truly winning performances from the featured cast.
Struggling stand-up Karla (Jenni Putney) and unemployed divorcee Don (Tim McGeever) have exactly one thing in common: their mothers are both sharing a room at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Karla's tough-as-nails, emotionally distant mother Marcie (Helena Ruoti) has never been sick a day in her life; Don's ailing mother Geena (Kendra McLaughlin) has been dying for years now. Naturally, sparks fly, conflicts arise, flirtations and arguments spark up and calm down, all interspersed with both the most unexpectedly emotional scene-change and the most hilariously graphic onstage sex scene you're likely to see this year.
Putney and McGeever both nail the sitcom rhythms of their dialogue, Putney channeling Kristin Bell's frayed-around-the-edges perkiness while McGeever strongly recalls Jesse Tyler Ferguson's squirmy tragicomedy in cult classic The Class. The rapport between the two of them is realistically uneasy, feeling alternately welcome and pathetic in both antagonistic and romantic moments. As directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, the balance never slides to firmly for too long to the "funny" or "dour" side of the sadcom scale, assisted by the intermittent interjections of Kendra McLaughlin's taciturn Geena.
At the heart of the show, however, is Helena Ruoti as the prickly Marcie. She's precisely the kind of nightmare parent everyone assumes emotionally-insecure comedians have, perpetually belittling her daughter, poking holes in their relationship, and flirting bizarrely with the man Karla has unexpectedly bonded with. Nonetheless, despite her emotional cruelty, there's a certain admirable strength in her, coping with cancer in her own grim way. (If I can stretch the sadcom analogy a little further, Marcie definitely shows shades of Belita Moreno's Grandma Bennie in George Lopez's titular sitcom which laid the genre's seeds.) As she jokingly convulses, "practicing dying," it's not at all difficult to see where Karla gets her sense of humor, which even she admits is a little boundary pushing at times. (Here's an award I never thought I'd have to give a show: "funnest rape jokes.")
This is not the sort of play, and Halley Feiffer is not the sort of playwright, to wrap everything up in a bow, everyone smiling and hugging and problems all resolved. Rather, the play ends when it ends. We are more at the end of an episode than the end of a story. Nonetheless, A Funny Thing... is heartfelt, funny and entertaining enough to leave me wishing against hope for a Season 2.