When you grow up the daughter of cartoonist-playwright Jules Feiffer, the purveyor of comic urban neuroses, some of that has to rub off on you.
So it has for Halley Feiffer, who juggled humor and anger in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (seen two seasons back at GableStage) and, to a lesser extent in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, now receiving its area premiere at Primal Forces in Boca Raton.
While the former work had the semi-autobiographical authenticity of father-daughter push-pull, A Funny Thing seems far more contrived and a lot less funny. Under Keith Garsson’s direction, the production does have worthy performances, even as the evening feels long at a mere 70 intermissionless minutes.
As the unwieldy title suggests, the play takes place in a Manhattan cancer ward where two elderly female patients lie in bed, drugged comatose with painkillers. On one side of the room divided by a flimsy curtain is Karla (Shelley Keelor), a stand-up comic wannabe, trying out her raunchy routine laden with references to vibrators, masturbation and wet dreams.
Soon entering on the other side is Don (Seth Trucks), a down-on-his-luck schlub whose wife has left him, who dresses like a homeless man even though he is wealthy from devising and selling a wedding planning computer app.
He is quickly offended by Karla’s attempts at humor, but by the formulaic rules of rom-coms, they are instantly hostile to one another – including throwing water in each other’s faces – before bonding and later retiring to the adjacent handicapped accessible bathroom for oral sex. Proximity to death, you see, makes strange bedfellows, or at least bathroom-fellows.
Eventually, Karla’s mom, Marcie (Jerri Iaia), gains consciousness and critiques her daughter’s comedy act in a way that makes their genetic link evident. Later, she engages in conversation with Don, long enough for him to give her a monetary peace offering to defray her hospital bills. His mother, Geena (Linda Bernhard), on the other hand, never wakes from her drug-induced stupor before succumbing to her cancer.
So file A Funny Thing under a slice of hospital life crossed with a fleeting connection and passion between the patients’ sentries. Keelor and Trucks are the saving graces of the production. Keelor’s rare non-musical performance demonstrates previously unseen acting chops as a woman who uses her comedy as a defense mechanism against her mother’s inevitable demise, but Karla is clearly in need of career counseling. Trucks goes through a medley of awkward and uncomfortable tics that knit into a character sketch that is easy to empathize with.
Dustin Hamilton’s hospital set has plenty of well-observed institutional details and Jerry Sturdefant’s costumes convey Karla and Don’s emotional states aptly. The production looks good, the cast gives it its all and Feiffer again shows a talent for biting dialogue, even if the play does not add up to much of consequence.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY, Primal Forces at Sol Theater, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, through Sunday, March 1, $40, 866-811-4111.