What greets you as you take your seat for A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is scene designer Tony Ferrieri’s recreation of a two-bed hospital room, precisely observed down to the last detail, from the institutional peach of the wall paint, to the white boards scrawled with names of the caregivers on duty. A hanging green curtain – of the pale green favored by women’s hospitals – separates the two beds, which are occupied by sleeping patients – the one on the right has clearly been there longer (her corkboard is filled with pictures); the one on the left has a visitor, a young woman who is scribbling ostentatiously in a journal. Depending on how early you take your seat, you may watch these sleeping patients, this scribbling woman, and this remarkably authentic hospital room for quite some time – perhaps for an amount of time that starts to feel, uncannily, a lot like that awful suspended hospital-time of the real world of medical care.
It’s a setting and situation that most of us wouldn’t associate with comedy, but the set provides a small clue that humor (often of the most inappropriate sort) is what’s on offer by way of the two watercolor paintings on the wall, which depict the sort of flowers that unmistakably resemble female genitalia. Sure enough, the first thing that bursts out of the young woman’s mouth after the play begins is a series of edgy vibrator/rape jokes, material for her stand-up comedy routine, which she’s practicing aloud to her sleeping mother. These jokes aren’t particularly funny, but I think that’s the point: like the play, the comedian’s one-liners straddle an uncomfortable line between the comic and the dire, and the attempt to wring humor out of seriousness isn’t always wholly successful.
The plot of the play is, as advertised, a “meet-cute” romance: Karla (Jenni Putney), the young comedian, meets Don (Tim McGeever), the son of her mother’s hospital roommate, while both are visiting their cancer-stricken mothers. As the genre requires, their initial encounter is contentious – he objects to both the volume and content of her jokes, she’s repulsed by his schlumpy wardrobe and priggish passive aggression – and the relationship leads slowly (but predictably) toward romantic coupling. They are a classic mismatched couple, with shades of both Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn and Pretty Woman in the setup. Playwright Halley Feiffer’s twist on the genre is to toss in not only the challenges of coping with loss and grief, but also the characters’ own emotional baggage: Karla fits the mold of the self-obsessed, narcissistic comedian to a “T,” and Don, despite being a startup millionaire, is a sad-sack who is emotionally estranged from both ex-wife and teen son.
Karla also has a vexed relationship with her mother, Marcie (Helena Ruoti), who is nearly as abusive and unlikable as the dad in Feiffer’s previous play, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard. Feiffer claims in the interview published in the program that A Funny Thing is not autobiographical, but both this play and I’m Gonna Pray seem suspiciously interested in airing dirty family laundry. While it’s refreshing to see a work that resists the temptation to portray a dying person as sentimentally “reformed,” Marcie’s cruelty toward Karla makes her seem more like a portrait drawn in revenge than a fully worked out character.
The production, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, successfully walks the delicate line between comedy and seriousness that the play demands. Many of the physical comedy bits Brody stages elicit gasps of delighted laughter, including the play’s romantic climax, a sex scene in the bathroom, which is also one of the funniest moments of the play. He has a deft hand with the play’s more serious scenes, too, and arguably the most memorable moment of the play comes when Don reminisces about establishing an early moment of trust and respect with his young son, a connection now lost to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene, handled beautifully by the emotionally labile Tim McGeever, who starts from a place of awkward, lighthearted apology and ends in a state of solitude and deep regret.
Indeed, while all three of the principle actors give strong performances, Tim McGeever’s emotional journey as Don is the standout. Physically and verbally flexible, McGeever contorts in frustration, deflates in sadness, collapses into laughter, and practically vibrates with joy and desire; he has so much heart and life that, although Karla is clearly the character at the center of the playwright’s interest, McGeever makes this Don’s story. Contrived as the situation that brings Don and Karla is – and as farcically outrageous as some of the physical action becomes – what seems real in this play, besides the hospital furniture, is the pain and loneliness that McGeever brings to life in Don.