‘A Funny Thing’ snatches caustic humor from the jaws of death

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Mary Williamson (left) and Stef Tovar in the Chicago premiere of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Sloan-Ketting Memorial Cancer Center of New York City.” | Brandon Dahlquist photo

The ridiculously lengthy title is your first clue: This is not one of those cancer stories wherein the devastating illness brings out the transcendent nobility of all in its path. Playwright Halley Feiffer is not here to expound on saintly patients, selfless caretakers and soul-baring deathbed catharses that send the dying to eternity cleansed of all rancor and leave the living bathed in the glow of redemption.

“Beaches” this is not.

‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT SLOAN-KETTERING MEMORIAL CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY’ Recommended When: Through Sept. 23 Where: The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $35 adults, $20 students Info: Route66theatre.org

In Feiffer’s world, death does not bring out the sacred nobility of the human soul. It is brutal, messy, accompanied by copious profanity and a catalyst some of the messiest and most howlingly inappropriate hospital sex you can imagine.

Directed by Kiera Fromm, “Funny Thing” centers on Don (Stef Tovar) and Karla (Mary Williamson), both keeping watch as their mothers lie dying in the titular hospital. Separated by a sea-foam green curtain, Karla’s mother Marcie (Meg Thalken) and Don’s mother Geena (Judy Lea Steele) are in different stages of demise. Marcie still has plenty of belligerent moxie left (“This oxygen tube feels like it’s raping my nose”), much of which she deploys at Karla. (“Tell the nurse I need a new nasal cannula … and a new daughter.”) Don’s mother Geena is much quiete; she’s been dying for seven years and the end seems nigh.

Don and Karla meet through the room-dividing curtain. He’s slumped in a chair, head in his hands, a portrait of chronic depression and human wreckage. He’s wearing the grossest sweatpants you’ve ever seen. His shirt and his shoes have holes. His hair looks like it hasn’t been washed or combed in years.

Karla, by contrast, is all fire and verve. While her mother snores in the background, Karla’s running through her stand-up routine. The aspiring comic’s “bits” can’t be repeated here; suffice to say, Don does not find them funny. He listens in, first in disbelief, then in dropped-jaw shock and finally in horror. By the time Karla gets to the part about the fedora-wearing vibrator backlit by silvery moonlight, he explodes in righteous indignation.

Predictably, Don and Karla’s relationship blossoms. You can see their romance coming from a mile off, but Feiffer’s dialogue is so biting and original that it’s easy to forgive the less-than-innovative plot.

The mighty performances Fromm pulls from her cast also make the piece spark. Williamson makes Karla a tightly wound tornado of a woman, as tough as rawhide but with a streak of fear and vulnerability that not even her carefully cultivated armor of bravado can completely hide.

As Don, Tovar gradually reveals the unexpected depths within a seemingly nebbish loser. As those awful sweatpants make way to khakis and, ultimately, a well-cut suit, Don’s morphs as well. He’s got more grit and dignity than is initially apparent.

Feiffer packs too many loaded emotional issues into her 90-minute piece: Marcie’s breathtaking cruelty to her daughter is so extreme it begs further explanation and is never adequately delved. Other heavy matters (adoption, child rearing, the death of a sibling) explode through the dialogue but are similarly skimmed. Still, zingers from Feiffer’s dialogue will needle you long after the curtain drops.

The dead, Marcie tells Don, are “in a better place. Trouble is, you’re not.” Both Don and Karla struggle to find ways to make the place where they are better. They fail in this as much as they succeed. But their struggle is mightily entertaining.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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