Chicago Theatre Review
Laughing Though All the Pain
A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center of New York City – Route 66
With an oxymoronic title this long and difficult to remember, audiences may be a bit reluctant to take a chance on this new offering by the much-respected Route 66 Theatre Company. But be not afraid: this very adult play offers much more comedy than theatergoers could ever expect. Halley Feiffer’s 90-minute one-act also deals with life’s tragedies: loneliness, poverty, illness and death. But this black comedy, which overflows with salty language and frank sexual situations, is about the relationship between two very different people who find they have more in common than they initially imagine.
This prolific young actress, screenwriter and playwright wrote this play in response to a real-life situation. The daughter of famous parents (cartoonist Jules Feiffer and comic writer Jenny Allen), Halley Feiffer first penned a one-woman performance piece entitled “I Got Sick Then I Got Better,” based upon her mother’s experience with ovarian cancer. Soon afterward, she crafted this longer, darker comedy, based upon Ms. Allen’s stay at Sloan-Kettering. It comes from Halley’s fantasy that maybe her mom’s hospital roommate, lying comatose on the other side of the curtain, might have a cute son with whom she could flirt.
In Ms. Feiffer’s play we meet Karla, a blunt, foul-mouthed, twenty-something comedian. She’s confronted by Don, when her raunchy language begins to offend. He’s a conservative, middle-aged millionaire, who dresses like a homeless person, and is visiting his sick mother. They’re both sitting in a quiet hospital room where Death is just waiting to snatch up two more helpless victims. Don believes a little more decorum and respect would be appropriate in this sensitive situation; Karla sees nothing wrong with her loud outbursts about vibrators and wet dreams. Both Karla and Don have mothers lying in drug-induced comas, but the relationships with their respective parents are quite different. Together these two lost individuals eventually learn to like each other and laugh through all the pain.
Directed with unflinching honesty and compassion, talented Chicago director Keira Fromm (“Bright Half Life,” “The Columnist”) makes this gallows humor comedy move audiences, both with laughter and lamentation. Her talented cast stars the gifted Mary Williamson as Karla and Stef Tovar as Don. These two masterful actors complement each other with their characters and individual portrayal. While Williamson is sharp, acerbic and confronting, Tovar is gentile, kindly and empathetic. Both actors bring to their roles strong performances that are as naturalistic as they are appealing.
In some ways, Karla and Don are the yin and yang of the same person, someone having to deal with life’s most tragic and taxing experiences. It’s not enough that both are coping, in their own way, with a loved one suffering from a fatal illness. Karla is a struggling standup performer, trying to find her own comic voice; Don is a recently-divorced father with a callous, possibly drug-addicted teenage son. These are just some of the discoveries audiences will make about these struggling young adults that help make them feel as three-dimensional and real as your own family. Fears, wishes, memories from growing up—all make Karla and Don seem as sane and sensible as anyone you know.
Marcie, Karla’s crusty, candid, cancer-riddled mother, is played with tart frankness by talented Meg Thalken. No stranger to Chicago audiences, Ms. Thalken creates a gutsy woman who’s faced down her own mortality and chosen to never say die. She may be bedridden but Marcie soon becomes an integral part of this story through her snappy, outspoken portrait of a woman who has shut love out of her life. Judy Lea Steele, recently making waves at Raven and Citadel Theatres, has some humorous moments as Don’s ailing mother Geena.
Courtney O’Neill’s authentic scenic design is a familiar setting to anyone who’s ever been confined in a two-bed hospital room. Her attention to detail, from the emergency alarm on the wall, to the pink linoleum tile, is unpretentious and genuine-looking. Mieka VanderPloeg’s costumes are excellent and exact. She especially creates the perfect kitschy toggery for the outspoken Karla. And Claire Margaret Chrzan’s lighting is absolutely correct, particularly the illumination she creates filtering in through the Venetian blinds.
Halley Feiffer’s dark, sometimes disturbing, often racy and graphically sexual comedy, will at first seem like an unlikely way to spend an evening in the theatre. But given the chance, these characters will win over liberal-minded theatergoers with their blunt honesty and the determined way they attack life. Directed with truth and empathy, and featuring terrific performances by a quartet of talented actors, this production will provide an hour and a half of laughter and thoughtful reflection upon the human condition.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 24-September 23 by Route 66 Theatre at the Den’s Bookspan Theatre,1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Den box office or by going to www.route66theatre.org.
Additional information about this and other are productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.