Seeking respite from the culture wars and disasters both natural and manmade, I decided to attend the opening night performance of City Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecological Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York. The play is by the talented young playwright and actress, Halley Feiffer. She is currently playing the lead role of Karla in A Funny Thing Happened… at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse. One of Feiffer’s other plays, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, was produced last year at Point Park University’s The Rep. She is good at writing comedies which is no wonder since her father is cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer. Her mother, Jenny Allen, is a writer for The New Yorker as well as a performer and book author.
A Funny Thing Happened… has somewhat of a triangulated plot centered on the main character, Karla (Jenni Putney), who aspires to greater success as a standup comedian and is often working out new comedy bits. She has a strained relationship with her mom, Marcie (Helena Ruoti), who is very hard on Karla. About the only thing they both enjoy doing together is watching the crime drama “SV: PED.” The other plot angle has Kendra connecting with Don (Tim McGeever), the son of the other patient in the room, Geena (Kendra McLaughlin). A hospital room is not often a good setting for comedy, but it can offer some fun props including the curtain that separates the two patients.
There Hasn’t Been This Much Drama in a Hospital Room Since ‘ER’
As the audience takes their seats, three of the actors are on the lighted hospital-room stage. Karla is sitting in the hospital chair next to her dozing mother Marcie and the equally out-of-it Geena. Karla appears to be thinking as she gazes into the air and is writing things down in her notebook.
The action begins as Karla, dressed casually in jeans, shirt, and pink high-top basketball shoes, starts sounding out the new comedy routine she is working on. Both her mom and Geena are impervious to her standup monologue.
The bit that she is working on is “I’ve been single for so long I’m starting to have sex dreams about my vibrator. I even dream of my vibrator standing in a moonlit doorway, sometimes even wearing a fedora hat.” She is conversing with her dozing mother about which term works better, “sex dream” or “wet dream.” As she continues to work on the bit, unbeknownst to her due to the patient privacy curtain, Geena’s son, Don, has entered the room and has taken a seat next to his mother’s bed. As Karla continues with her sex jokes, Don grows increasingly more uncomfortable. Keeping quiet while squirming in his seat, he finally has to say something and tells her he would appreciate it if she would stop. They start arguing with one another and move to their respective sides of the privacy curtain, continuing to argue through it. And a Funny Thing Happened… is off and running.
Eventually the privacy curtain is pulled back and the discussion continues. Both Karla and Don are fueled by the disappointments in their lives and the strain of having their mothers in the gynecological cancer ward.
They calm down and after a few more visits a fragile romance starts to blossom. Karla’s and Don’s senses of humor exist on almost opposite poles of the comedy spectrum. She tends to vibrator and rape jokes while Don enjoys reading humor articles in The New Yorker about the life of a condom in a man’s wallet. One of the funniest parts of the play is the hospital-room sex scene, from “swimming” on the floor to the inappropriate use of the handicap-accessible bathroom. There are some plot twists, but we don’t want to reveal them here for those who choose to see the play.
A Talented Cast
The mothers, Marcie and Geena, occasionally wake up to provide some witty commentary and a few dramatic moments. Both Ruoti and McLaughlin play their parts well. Ruoti shines as always, giving humor and depth to her character. She makes good use of a certain facial expression a few times during her scenes.
McGeever plays the understated role of Don to a T, giving as good as he gets from Karla, albeit in a slightly quieter manner. Putney is fantastic in the role of Karla. She has a pretty face which she uses for top-notch comedy through her often humorous expressions and looks. Sometimes she chews gum and fiddles with her pencil and notebook. The way she delivers her lines, and her stances and movements, also add to the comedic effect. She has an incredible rapid-fire dialog going during the sex scene that is very funny.
I went to A Funny Thing Happened… seeking comic relief, but was pleasantly surprised by the fine dramatic touches the play also supplied. The comedy and the drama played well together, with the latter sometimes enhanced by sound and lighting effects. The audience enjoyed several good laugh-out-loud moments and also some tender moments. The cast is very good and the play is one that should be seen.
A Funny Thing Happened… runs smoothly under the direction of Joshua Kahan Brody. The very realistic hospital room set is designed by Tony Ferrieri. Lighting design is by Andrew David Ostrowski, sound design by Zachary Beattie-Brown, and costumes by Michael Montgomery. Through October 15. City Theatre says the play is equivalent to an R rated movie. For showtimes and tickets, visit the City Theatre website or call 412-431-CITY.
Photos: Courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover and City Theatre.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys attending plays.