Reviewed Performance: 3/11/2018
It has been a very long time since I have seen a production at Stage West. A very long time. They were still over by TCU the last time I darkened their door. I remember that they would present "edgy" shows that were more cerebral than the vast majority of offerings in the Fort Worth theatre community at the time. I am happy to report, little has changed where that is concerned.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York" probably wins the award for the longest title of a show and I'm not really sure what to tell you it is. Is it a comedy? Yes, but a dark one indeed. Drama? Most definitely. A psychological exploration of vastly different personalities coerced together at their most vulnerable points of existence? Yeah, that is an explanation worthy of the title.
"A Funny Thing..." begins as soon as you walk into the theatre. Two of the four actors are already on stage as the audience is assembling. They're comatose which makes it weirder than expected and the audience responds as if they are actually in the hospital room of someone recovering from cancer surgery. The set is completely exposed with the two beds, the generic hospital nightstands, uncomfortable visitor chairs, IV pumps (strangely there were no IV bags) and other hospital accouterment so the reaction of the audience as they entered is natural and somewhat real.
Shannon J. McGrann and Judy Keith as Marcie and Geena respectively lay silent for the first thirty minutes that the house is open, through Dana Schultes' curtain speech and pretty much the first two thirds of the opening act. Not a whole lot of acting going on but still, props to them for being able to hold that for so long. It actually is a whole lot harder than you might think.
The show opens with Karla, (Janielle Kastner) a low brow, 20-something millennial talking to her heavily medicated mother. She is a third-tier stand-up comedian that relies on foul language and penis/vagina jokes for laughs and she is trying to find the right combination of what my parents referred to as "cuss words" to make a joke about rape funny.
I should take time here to mention that this is not, I repeat, NOT a show suitable for anyone less than high school age. There is every foul and filthy word known to the American lexicon used repeatedly in varying and fascinating combinations throughout the show. There is a simulated sex act on stage. The morality of the situations presented are not for the faint of heart. This show is not specifically rated on the marquee but it is definitely on the level of an 'R' rating.
Don, (Thomas Ward) a personification of a mid-life crisis, then enters the semi-private room unbeknownst to Karla who is still trying to get her rape joke set up in her head. He is unaware of what she is trying to do and takes much offense at her language and general attitude. Thus, the exploration of personalities begins.
The lines written for Karla and Don are in such real terms that the language flows naturally through the script. Kastner is completely believable as a troubled middle-finger-to-the-world millennial though everything from her line delivery to her reactions to Don and her mother. The emotions on her face speak volumes when she can't talk. I never doubted for a moment that she was Karla. Thomas Ward as Don seemed a hair less comfortable with his role. He was wonderful in it and delivered it with grace but he still came across as an actor very solidly portraying a role whereas Kastner had me believing she was Karla.
The main thrust of the play is exploring the relationships between people. Between an older man and a free thinking younger woman, a mother and daughter, father and son and a little bit of husband and wife. Mainly it is focused on Karla and her mom, Marcie. Shannon J. McGrann comes through with a beautiful performance as the mother who loves her daughter dearly but really knows just what buttons to push to set her off. She makes excellent use of how most mother/daughter relationships, no matter how close and loving, will have that aspect of competition and emotions that make it complicated at best.
One of the subtler but very excellent aspects of this show is the lighting design by L.W. Miller and the sound design by Marco Salinas. The passage of time in the show is perfectly represented by the movement and fading of the lights so that you are definitely aware of where we are in the grand scheme of things. The hospital is in NYC and the sounds from the street are constant through the run of the show. They are varied so much; cars, sirens, delivery/trash trucks, that they just become a natural part of the performance. Kudos to Marco for making this very real play even moreso.
There is a lot to be said for large shows with big scenes and times when you can tell what the director was thinking by the choices made in the staging or whatever. There is also a lot to be said for a small show like this one that comes across as so real (I seem to be saying that a lot) and natural that it doesn't even seem to be directed. Rather, it just happened and we get to eavesdrop on these people's lives for a few days. That is what Dana Schultes has accomplished here. A beautiful, engaging show that gets into your head and forces introspection.
My wife is a three-year survivor of Breast Cancer, and I lost my mom a couple years ago to the same monster. Many of the emotions presented and even the foul language tirades I can remember feeling and saying pretty much the same things. This is not a sparkly everything-works-out-and-life-is-wonderful show. It is edgy. It is real. It is a study of how we as humans make it through emotional turmoil by ourselves and with the help of each other. It will make you think and it is very good theatre. I implore you to see this show with someone you love and use it to create conversations about relationships and hardships and love.