The gynecologic oncology unit at New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center might seem the last place any playwright in her right mind would choose to set a laugh-packed romcom, but this is precisely where Halley Feiffer has set A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City, an off-the-wall comedic treat now getting an infectiously winning West Coast Premiere at the Geffen.

Feiffer herself stars as aspiring standup comic Karla, at this very moment trying out her latest routine on her meds-doped (and therefore entirely unresponsive) mother Marcie (JoBeth Williams), neither of them aware that on the other side of this curtain-divided semi-private hospital room, Internet startup whiz Don (Jason Butler Harner) is being subjected to Karla’s slew of off-the-wall sex-jokes, including wondering aloud whether “wet dream” sounds funnier than “sex dream” in the vibrator-rape fantasy she’s got planned for her next comedy club show.

If Karla’s one-liners inspire laughs (as indeed they do), it’s hardly because they signal the arrival of the next Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman (far from it) but because of the reaction they provoke from the unwilling audience-of-one on the other side of the curtain, rapidly rising rage that finally erupts into a stream of invectives launched towards a woman he can hear but not yet see.

Plenty of romcoms have started off with precisely this type of hate-at-first-sight setup. Few manage as quickly or deftly for the couple in question to transition from instant dislike to romantic-sexual fireworks.

Feiffer does just this in her play’s first fifteen outrageously funny minutes, leaving another fifty-five for us to get to know Karla and Don better, and though neither is what you’d call a people-pleaser, it’s precisely their quirks and baggage and humanity that has us on their team even as Karla’s mom and Don’s (Eileen T’Kaye as Geena) remain out for the count, that is until Marcie wakes up after about forty-five minutes to add her own two cents to the mix.

Baggage these characters do indeed have in abundance—a deceased druggie sister, a broken marriage, an angry, rebellious teenage son—but this only serves to make them real and human and to have us rooting for each to be the other’s best medicine.

Speaking of which, if laughter is the next best thing to drugs when battling either a potentially terminal illness or life’s day-to-day tedium, then A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City proves therapeutic indeed, and not merely for Karla and Don and Geena and Marcie.

Despite its fair share of gallows humor, Feiffer’s play is the furthest thing from a downer, particularly as directed with crowd-pleasing pizzazz by Trip Culman, who helmed its 2016 MCC Theater off-Broadway debut and is this time round blessed with a brand-new cast, in particular a dream leading lady appearing for the first time ever in a play of her writing.

No one gets Feiffer’s uniquely quirky style better than Feiffer, and though she’s not precisely playing “herself” (as she did in her co-written indie gem He’s Way More Famous Than You), it’s close enough to that movie’s spacey oddity of a “Halley” to make Karla a foul-mouthed, self-centered, unexpectedly endearing delight.

Harner’s unkempt, frazzled, scruffily handsome Don may be a bit of an emotional mess himself, but he proves a perfect sparring partner in Karla and Don’s love-hate match (and apparently the most gifted cunninliguist within Sloan Kettering walls).

The redoubtable Williams has never been funnier or more touching than she is as the fabulously feisty Marcie and T’Kaye makes the most of an almost entirely unconscious role.

A sensational production design team (scenic designer Lauren Helpern, lighting designer Matthew Richards, and Darron L. West reprising their NYC work with only costume designer David Kay Mickelsen representing L.A talents) give A Funny Thing Happened both authenticity and punch.

Ross Jackson is stage manager and Jade Cagalawan is assistant stage manager. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Jenna Anne Johnson, Sean McConaghy, and Sarah Underwood Saviano are understudies.

You might not remember every word of its unwieldy title, but you’re likely to be telling everyone within earshot that A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City is not to be missed. I’d say it’s just what the laugh doctor ordered.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
September 14, 2017
Photos: Chris Whitaker


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