"A Funny Thing Happened," directed by Trip Cullman, however, doesn't have time for that.
The production, whose full title is "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City," is as exhausting as it sounds. Minutes into the show, central characters Karla and Don, each visiting their cancer-ridden mothers in the hospital, shell each other with a barrage of insults and rants in what feels like verbal artillery fire.
Karla, played by veteran playwright and author of the show Halley Feiffer, is a millennial standup comedian whose contradicting self-centeredness and insecurity parade from her sarcastic demeanor. This contrasts with the older, neurotic Don who resides in the waiting room opposite to her, caring for his mother that has been hospitalized for the past seven years.
But if you blink you miss it.
The long-winded dialogue spitting from Karla and Don in a series of heated arguments and drawn out jokes often challenges you to try and keep up during the show's outset. As "A Funny Thing Happened" attempts to then transition into tender moments or more pause-driven comedy, a conflict of tempo crashes into itself. Soon – and I mean very soon – we are left with a whirlwind of shifting speeds that confuses more than it entrances. The harm that this pacing creates is in taking away from the show's poignancy, those moments encouraging the audience to take a step back and consider the dire situation at hand.
As an audience member, the lack of transition between the show's peaks and troughs made those vital moments of tenderness difficult to accept, which is where Feiffer missed her opportunity to deliver her most powerful messages.
Feiffer and Jason Butler Harner, playing Karla and Don, respectively, each are fully-committed in their roles and bounce off each other successfully. Their dynamic moments are then halted by the brash, stony demeanor of JoBeth Williams, playing Marcie, Karla’s mother, in a touching, yet often caricatured performance. It is the linking between these conflicting character types, and their desired pacing, that veteran director Trip Cullman appears to struggle with.
The beauty behind “A Funny Thing Happened” loses its believability amongst the show’s insistence on being funny. In an interview with the Geffen, Feiffer describes writing the show initially as a comedy, yet “it was working with Trip [Cullman] that inspired me to dig deeper.” Here, it seems as though Cullman made a valiant effort, for the subjects the show touches upon are not only worth hearing, but are also valuable to take the time and reflect upon. Unfortunately, much like the bulk of society today, the world in which Karla and Don live in is too fast-paced, too charged with an insecure desire to make people laugh than to give these moments the time they are worth – and so we are left in the dust, wondering what the heck just happened.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City” runs through October 8, 2017 at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gill Cates Theater (10886 LeConte Ave., Los Angeles, CA). Tickets range from $30 to $90. For more information, please visit www.geffenplayhouse.org.
Contact Contributor Dan Toomey here.