By Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
If the title of Halley Feiffer’s new play “A Funny Thing Happened…” has any relevance – and this critic believes all titles are chosen for a specific purpose – then what happens before the audience meets Karla (Beth Behrs) and Don (Erik Lochtefeld) must be important. Otherwise, why borrow this great vaudevillian line? On the way to visiting their mothers at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Gynecological Oncology Unit, star-crossed lovers Karla and Don have carried around considerable psychological baggage which they begin to unpack when they meet across the divide of the privacy curtain separating their mothers’ beds.
Karla is a stand-up comic pitching her new comedic bits to her bed-ridden mother. Her sexually graphic comedy writing serves a variety of purposes both protective and portentous. Don is recovering from a divorce from the wife who has discovered her true sexual status and reeling from his apparently failed attempts at parenting his estranged son Malcolm who has hacked into Don’s bank account and withdrawn three thousand dollars. When Don walks in and hears Karla talking about rape and her vibrator, his venting soon follows resulting in a barrage of Millennial madness from the other side of the closed curtain. What follows is akin to a speed dating event gone very wrong.
Part of the success of “A Funny Thing…” is Ms. Feiffer’s judicious use of literary tropes including sophisticated threads of symbolism and sparkling imagery. It is no accident the setting is a hospital room designated for the rehearsal of death and dying. The intergenerational pair collides, bonds, and begins the long process of bereavement as their chance encounter begins to peel away layers of hurt and mistrust to reveal cores of honest grappling with mortality. Ms. Feiffer’s script allows the characters to engage in repeated volleys of assault and disarmament that result in millennial bravura being transformed into an intergenerational truce.
The extended sex scene in the bathroom of the hospital room is less about the salacious “event” and more about the two seemingly mismatched strangers – in age, gender, economic status – attaining parity and breaking down the barriers that society has imposed on them and which they have accepted as normative.
Under Trip Cullman’s judicious and incisive direction, Mr. Lochtefeld and Ms. Behrs both deliver convincing and authentic performances each capturing the complexities of their characters’ lives. Karla’s mother Marcie (played with a chilling disinterest by Lisa Emery) and Don’s mother Geena (played with a powerful silence by Jacqueline Sydney) remain bedridden throughout but their strength is evident in the collateral damage their parenting has inflicted. Ms. Emery’s character’s late attempts at reconciliation with her daughter come across as disingenuous although reconciliation has always been a tricky business.
Lauren Helpern’s uber-realistic hospital room counterpoints the onstage battles for healthy separation and individuation and is complemented by Kaye Voyce’s costume design, Matthew Richards’ clever lighting design, and Darron L. West’s sound design.
Halley Feiffer’s new play is worth the visit to MCC Theater’s home at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan’s West Village.