By Margret Echeverria
Just minutes after being bowled over by the smell of gym socks in the Lucille Lortel Theatre lobby, two bits of genius knocked me out while watching A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City: The sensation that I was in a patient room at a cancer center because set designer Lauren Halpern wholly put me there and the throat-grabbing writing of Halley Feiffer which was raw, risky, really hilarious and pushed me hard into the fear and grief that is cancer.
Comedienne, Karla (Beth Behrs), in contrast to her antiseptic surroundings, is working up some new material at her mother Marcie (Lisa Emery)’s bedside when the lights come up. Her bits make us laugh and then check ourselves because a lot of people would not laugh at these bits especially in the presence of Marcie’s roommate, Geena (Jacqueline Sydney), who is clearly in a lot of pain despite heavy sedation beyond the curtain between the two patients. Karla is so absorbed in her work that she doesn’t notice Don (Erik Lochtefeld) enter Geena’s side of the room. Don is not only Geena’s son, he is that person we have been checking for. And he’s not laughing. Yet.
Throughout the show, Feiffer mocks the powerful thief that is cancer, but never loses respect for what is required of our humanity when cancer breaks in. Lochtefeld and Behrs do over-emphasize a few moments at the very beginning of the play, but Director, Trip Cullman, allows his actors to reveal the majority of the moments as artful discovery.
Sydney was incredible. Geena is at the place where cancer makes speech difficult, but Sydney makes the character a fully participating piece of the ensemble. We know she is listening and we know what she is feeling I found myself often checking in to see what Geena was doing because it felt like a part of the journey not to be missed.
The love in the mother/daughter relationship between Karla and Marcie fights its way through a jumble of resentment and sometimes utter narcissism. Karla really wants to be a bad ass, but Marcie has historically found great entertainment in pointing out Karla’s vulnerability. Behrs and Emery evoke the familiar guilt we have over connection achieved despite missed opportunities to show empathy. And at the end is such a visceral victory over that guilt that you have to see.
Lochtefeld is absolutely precious as Don who is a warm bundle of anxiety and judgments, which we quickly learn are mostly about himself. Don feels so responsible for human connection in his life that he often misses it all together. Lochtefeld and Behrs are a delight to watch as they dance through the embarrassing tears and inappropriate laughter in their interrupted lives.
Forgiving the eau de gym socks is easy when you bathe in the fragile humanity and are cleansed by the most delicious laughter that is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. What better prescription is there than that?
A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City – By Halley Feiffer; directed by Trip Cullman
WITH: Beth Behrs (Karla), Lisa Emery (Marcie), Erik Lochtefeld (Don), and Jacqueline Sydney (Geena).
Set by Lauren Halpern; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Matthew Richards; sound by Darron L. West; stage manager, Alex H. Hajjar; production stage manager, Samantha Watson; Production Supervisor, Production Core; General Manager, Beth Dembrow; Director of Artistic Production & Development, Jessica Chase; Casting, Telsey & Company. Opening June 7, 2016 running through July 3, 2016 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, www.mcctheater.org (212) 727-7722 Tuesdays and Wednesdays @ 7:00pm, Thursdays and Fridays @ 8pm, Saturdays @ 2 and 8pm, Sundays @ 3pm. Tickets: From $49 Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.