Fort Worth — The dying hear everything.
It’s a well-used cautionary line, but seldom brought to life with as much squirming humor as in Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, where aspiring comic Karla (Janielle Kastner) meets tech entrepreneur Don (Thomas Ward) betwixt the possible deathbeds of their moms, accidental roomies at one of New York’s major cancer treatment hospitals.
Stage West continues its 39th season with the regional premiere of A Funny Thing…, another in a string of playwright-actor Feiffer’s raucous, expletive-repeated and unembarrassed takes on all manner of human relationships. On local stages, she’s known for her dark comedy I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, a hit for Kitchen Dog Theater in 2016 that followed the shredded ties binding a writer dad and actor daughter. Pray is a “nightmare version,” not real-life, says Feiffer, of struggles with her own father, playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge, Little Murders). Feiffer took an eye-widening look at sisters in 2013’s How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, and her co-written script for the film He’s Way More Famous Than You (also 2013), directed by Michael Urie, was a frenetic Friends set in the indie movie biz. (Feiffer also recently adapted Chekhov’s Three Sisters.)
A Funny Thing picks up on those works’ disquieting next-gen sensibility and sets it face-to-face with one of life’s larger reality checks: the loss of a parent. This time the “Halley Feiffer” avatar of the piece is Karla, found perched near her sleeping mother with a notepad, jotting down sex jokes that might make it into the stand-up comedy set she’s working on. The joke is on us: if we think her mom would be shocked by the language and material (how disrespectful!), we’ll have to think again when her just-as-mouthy mom Marcie (Shannon J. McGrann) wakes up.
Don, reading a New Yorker behind the drawn drape that divides the room (Jocelyn Girigorie’s hospital-room set design is painfully accurate), objects to the flood of language. It’s a classic meet-cute: he and Karla quarrel invisibly with the draw-drape between them, then yank it back for a better look.
They make an odd pair. Don has the weary patience of a cancer-war veteran; his mother Geena (a sleeping—but conscious when it counts—Judy Keith) has been ill for seven years. Karla, her mom’s diagnosis brand-new, is all raw edges. She can’t stop talking. He seems too drained to say much, though here and there we see flashes of a decent, funny guy.
Feiffer avoids polished banter, giving Don and Karla a lurching, in-the-moment conversational style. That rings true, as does the slightly surreal atmosphere that forms around those who spend long days and nights in the shadow of death. Time and life seem suspended; sadness reigns, but also crazy moments of comic relief. In this most human and yet ritualized of circumstances, there’s a sense that all bets are off and anything can happen.
Kastner makes Karla’s eye-rolling nonstop chatter both funny and annoying, playing up the character’s nervous energy and self-obsession. Is Karla talented? We can’t be sure; but she admits to being so ambitious she’d love to be the last comic alive in the world. Initially, her yearning for Marcie’s approval seems to be all about herself too. But there’s a moment when the chatter slows and Karla speaks truth—with her back to the audience (one of many effective choices from director Dana Schultes) as though we’re fine to see and hear her sexual stuff, but not this bald revelation of mother-daughter feeling.
Ward is appealing and low-key as Don, who gently strokes his mother’s cheek as she sleeps and has a knack for fulfilling Karla’s wishes, spoken or un. He definitely could be the hero of his own story, but we have suspicions that Feiffer (and Karla) want him to be wonderfully useful…and then gone. If A Funny Thing has the hint of a rom-com, it’s nothing if not pragmatic. In fact, Don seems to get along better with Karla’s flirty mother than Karla herself.
McGrann is droll and dry as a woman with comic chops of her own (Feiffer’s mother is comedian, memoirist—and cancer survivor—Jenny Allen) and more interest in her daughter’s future than Karla gives her credit for. Keith as the mostly unconscious Geena makes the absolute most of her few lines; getting a big laugh after an hour of “lying there” must feel great.
The thirtysomething Feiffer slam-bangs our funnybones on one of the biggest topics of all, but in true Millennial fashion doesn’t try to strike notes higher or deeper than her characters can handle. Nothing too profound or theatrical here; it wouldn’t be cool, perhaps. Or is it that for a generation used to expressing themselves so passionately and publicly about every aspect of life, events large and small are rolled into the flow of existence with a holistic sense that could seem shallow—or (who knows?) way more sensible.
But never mind that.
Just remember: The dying hear everything.