Halley Feiffer’s greatest achievement with her play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City (now making its local debut at City Theatre) is the title itself. It doesn’t just hint at the plot, it also describes how you’ll react to the play itself: The title starts out moderately funny, gets a little cutesy but finally is so self-aware you’re ready for it to be over.
Two people met at the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at the blah, blah, blah because both have mothers dying of cancer. Karla is a young, spikey, New York kinda gal, whose vulgar standup routine (which she rehearses bedside) obviously deflects a lot of personal pain. Don is a beaten, middle-aged sad sack, recently separated from his wife, estranged from his son and hiding from the world at his mother’s deathbed.
You don’t have to have spent your entire life around heterosexuals to know what comes next.
The play’s challenge is that everything Feiffer has written, whether by design or neglect (and it’s difficult to know which), is excessively studied and theatrical. Yes, it’s idiotic to bitch that theater is theatrical — but A Funny Thing is never wholly a black comedy, an intimate character study or kitchen-sink melodrama. Rather, we watch Feiffer aiming at all three.
It starts fun, with Feiffer’s purposefully outrageous humor, and gets a little cutesy as the various quirks of these quirky characters are unveiled. But because we’re never emotionally invested in such “written” characters and their troubles, the play wraps up a few scenes before the playwright does.
Nonetheless, there are several highly enjoyable performances: Jenni Putney and Tim McGeever are our sickroom love birds, and play the hell out of their roles. Putney does strong work with both the bristling exterior and aching need hidden beneath, while McGeever, remarkably, makes Don’s glum resignation active and compelling. And Helena Ruoti knows how to play all the laughs as Karla’s foul-mouthed mother.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps it all moving briskly and, as always, Tony Ferrieri’s set is definite and defining.