After catching a matinee of Once down at South Coast Repertory, I drove back up to LA County for a 7PM performance at one of my favorite local haunts, The Geffen Playhouse. Seeing two shows in a row is really my idea of the perfect Sunday. Actually, probably seeing one show, then being in another show would be ideal. And if it was a Sunday in June in New York, also winning a Tony Award in the evening would be the cherry on top. But for now I can be grateful for a two show viewing day in LA, accompanied by some very classy theatre broads.
This evening I met Julie at the theater, a friend of mine who lives just two blocks away from the Geffen and works as a costumer for TV. She's been a season ticket holder for a number of years (with the proximity, how could she not?) and is also an amazing, encouraging, stylish and hilarious mother of three gorgeous girls and I just love being around her. At this outing we would be watching A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York, written by and starring Halley Feiffer. Yeah, I know, by the time you finish saying the title the play is already over. But once you get used to the pacing and tone of humor in the show, it actually makes a lot of sense.
The production has some very strategically placed transition interlude tracks off the 2015 mellow, new-wave folk album "Carrie & Lowell" by Sufjan Stevens, which pretty much had me hooked in from curtain up. After the show I immediately knew that I liked it. But my inner theatre savant was shaking her head at me in embarrassment. This entire show is a cliche, she said, wagging her pencil at me. It's the most stereotypical, predictable, rom-com archetype, the man of course saves the day with his money, the girl's got daddy issues, as well as a bunch of other issues that negate her status as a functional member of society. Plus, I mean, Isabella, it's a play about white people! She had a point. But I still really liked this play, and even worse, I wanted to be in it.
After reading a mediocre review of a different production in The Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago, I did not go into this performance with high expectations. However, I can see how having the writer act in her own production probably made all the difference. Feiffer claims that she's glad she did not originate the role in New York, that she was amazed by Beth Behrs's interpretation and development and that she finds it challenging to step into a role she's written as the playwright without judging the character from all vantage points of the play. That being said, I found her representation of Karla to be an absolute treat. Her mannerisms, physicality and vocal nuances give Karla an equally unique and hilarious interpretation that will keep you laughing, constantly. Maybe because she wrote it, in Karla, Feiffer has just really nailed the self-deprecating humor. I loved watching her and her choices were always surprising and amusing in the best way possible.
In the story we get a glimpse into the highly relatable, tough-love relationships many of us have with our parents. It's clear that Karla's mother's (played by JoBeth Williams) illness has caused her to behave far worse towards her daughter than we can imagine their pre-cancer relationship to be. We say things we don't mean, even when we love each other, and sometimes we hurt those we love the most. Sometimes parents can't see what their kids really need and sometimes what kids want to give doesn't level out with their parents' expectations. Not too far off from Karla's age and career path, I can relate to the dissonance she experiences with her mother. The play reminds me that I can't always fix things, and that I won't always see eye to eye with my parents, but that sometimes being there is enough. I don't always trust myself to do that little; I feel like I need to fix everything. Sometimes hearing someone out is enough, even if it can be painful. Also sometimes taking care of yourself is as important as caring for someone with a serious illness. There are different kinds of pain.
Because Julie has a daughter that is battling cancer, I will say that I was just a little bit terrified walking into this show with her. But she absolutely loved it. And I think it's because the show goes beyond the cancer, beyond the illness and uses humor and happenstance to bring us all back to the reality that we're all human. We're all struggling, wether we're sick or well, parent or child, rich or poor. Yes, in future productions it would be cool to see more people of color on stage, and I think that is a possibility. But I'm glad I got to see Feiffer bringing her role to life. And I still would also like to be in this play.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York, runs at the Geffen Playhouse through October 8th and I highly recommend this one. A dark comedy meets a feel-good story; it's pretty weird but it kind of rocks!