A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is now playing until this March 1 at the Sol Children’s Theatre, courtesy of theatre company Primal Forces. The 2016 play by Halley Feiffer is not to be confused with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the famous Sondheim musical the former work’s title is an exceedingly wordy riff on.
Instead, this fast-paced romp tells the much darker but still surprisingly funny tale of struggling comedian Karla (Shelley Keelor) and millionaire entrepreneur Don (Seth Trucks), who form an unexpected connection while their hospital-roommate mothers fight cancer at the location mentioned in the title.
Along with Karla and Don’s budding connection, which follows a more or less typical rom-com trajectory, the show explores the more poignant story of Karla’s attempts to repair her relationship with her mother Marcie (Jerri Iaia), which had become strained due to a family tragedy.
Don, meanwhile, is dealing with a recent divorce and his teenage son’s rebellious behavior while struggling to accept that his own mother, Geena (Linda Bernhard), is unlikely to recover from her illness.
The play’s dialogue is peppered with plenty of razor-sharp and daring black comedy, as well as some memorable physical gags. A good old glass of water to the face never goes out of style, and turns out a handicapped bathroom can be a pretty convenient place for some hanky-panky!
However, though Don’s sensitivity and complexity made him a far more engaging character than the obnoxious Karla, who casually makes rape jokes in front of her sleeping mother, spent a good portion of her young adulthood in a drug-fueled haze, and can scarcely think of anything but herself.
Perhaps Karla’s immaturity would have been more forgivable if the character had come off as a little younger; though Karla’s self-absorption does not go unremarked upon by the play’s other characters, it still made her somewhat hard to root for despite her trying family circumstances.
Thanks in large part to Keelor and Truck’s chemistry, their courtship was still easy to root for, as was Laia’s feisty Marcie. Bernhard has far less to do as Geena, but delivers her few lines excellently, managing to remain engaged and engaging through subtle movements even when her character is unconscious and clinging to life.
Finally, Dustin Hamilton’s realistic set should be unfortunately familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a hospital, complete with nurses doing their rounds during scene changes.
Running an intermission-less 75 minutes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome, and manages to impart a few moving insights about grief, healing, and forgiveness along with its irreverent jabs. If only we could all spend less time denying our own mortality and more time laughing in its face!