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The latest play by Halley Feiffer, daughter of cartoonist-playwright-screenwriter Jules Feiffer, proves that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree when it comes to the desire to shock. Featuring a plethora of jokes about such subjects as rape, vibrators and cancer, as well as an extended scene graphically depicting oral sex, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center New York City, being given its world premiere by MCC Theater, only sporadically lives up to its strained title.
The setting is self-evident of this comedy about the burgeoning relationship between a twentysomething, aspiring female comic and a troubled, middle-aged divorced man who “meet cute” in the hospital room shared by their dying mothers.
Beth Behrs of 2 Broke Girls plays the bohemian Karla, first seen trying out new material before her unconscious mother Marcie (Lisa Emery). To call her routine — which includes an elaborate rape fantasy involving her fedora-wearing vibrator — “provocative” is an understatement. It’s certainly shocking to Don (Erik Lochtefeld), the unkempt man who unbeknownst to her has entered the room to visit his elderly comatose mother Geena (Jacqueline Sydney). After suffering in silence for a few minutes behind the curtain separating the beds, he angrily berates Karla for her inappropriateness. It’s not hard to guess where things will go from there.
Yes, this very odd couple begins bonding over their emotional pain about not only their mothers’ illnesses but also the death of Karla’s sister from a drug overdose, Don’s estrangement from his druggie teenage son and his wife having left him for a woman. He does have one thing going for him at least: Despite his schlubby appearance — the sleeves of his tattered sport coat have holes — he’s rich, having made a fortune creating and then selling off a wedding-planning website.
In an episode of abandon, they impulsively retire to the bathroom, where, just a few feet away from their dying mothers, Don exuberantly pleasures a rapturous, chatty Karla, in a scene played out at enough length to make women in the audience envious. It also yields the play’s funniest sight gag.
Although Don’s mother remains mostly silent — Sydney expertly times her few lines of comic dialogue — Marcie awakens enough to demonstrate her difficult personality and troubled relationship with her daughter. She does eventually warm up to Don, however, even encouraging a dubious Karla to give a real relationship with him a chance.
As with her previous effort, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Feiffer again demonstrates a talent for crafting caustically sharp comic dialogue. But other than the abundance of raunchy one-liners, this play has little to recommend it. Neither the characterizations nor situations ring true; practically everything, especially the sex scene graphically staged by director Trip Cullman, feels forced; and the romantic relationship between the two main characters seems more like the wish-fulfillment of a middle-aged male playwright than a female writer barely into her 30s.
Behrs is very effective in her New York theatrical debut, garnering many laughs but also movingly conveying Karla’s inner turmoil. Lochtefeld makes a perfect sad-sack comic foil, and Emery manages the difficult feat of making her highly disagreeable (admittedly for a reason) character sympathetic. But for all the performers’ efforts, the play ultimately feels as artificial as its derivative, overlong title.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Beth Behrs, Lisa Emery, Erik Lochtefeld, Jacqueline Sydney
Playwright: Halley Feiffer
Director: Trip Cullman
Set designer: Lauren Helpern
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Matthew Richards
Sound designer: Darron L.West
Presented by MCC Theater
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