Mini Play Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City by Halley Feiffer

Wow, the title sure is a mouthful, and if it gets chosen for the 2020 season at my civic theater, what would the poster look like?! A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City by Halley Feiffer is off its leash. It’s wild. It’s raunchy. It requires four actors, two of them on their deathbed.

a funny thing happened cover.jpg

Karla, a young woman in her 20s, goes to the gynecologic oncology unit to visit her mother, who is almost always sleeping. It’s there that Karla practices her stand-up routine — she’s an aspiring comedian — that is filled with rape jokes. One joke ends:

“I just have visions of like, my vibrator standing in the archway, backlit by silvery moonlight, sometimes wear a fedora (sometimes not), and lovingly fucking me ’til sunrise.”

This is a weird first 4 pages to read because A) it’s the beginning of the play, so where can it go from here? and B) this is the era of #MeToo for crying out loud! Karla and her mother are on the left side of a hospital curtain (when you’re looking at the stage), and on the right side is another woman in a hospital bed, asleep. Then enters her son, Don, a man in his 40s, disheveled, a terribly sloppy dresser but kind of handsome. He overhears Karla’s jokes and gets into an argument with her.

A funny thing happened
Image of the original play from The New York Times.

Keep in mind the curtain is still separating the individuals and their dying mothers, so Don doesn’t realize how young and innocent-looking Karla is compared to her dirty mouth. As the arguing dies down, Karla and Don continue to poke at each other, but we also learn that Don’s son doesn’t want to see him and that Karla’s sister committed suicide some time ago. You’re not supposed to laugh, but you can’t stop.

While the first 4 pages are very “ew” and there is a scene during which Don is supposed to go down on Karla (how are theaters doing this??), it is terribly fun to read, and I found myself giggling at odd moments. When Don tells Karla to keep it down while practicing her comedy routine, she continues her dirty jokes quietly. He repeats himself, but Karla doesn’t understand that when Don says keep it down, he doesn’t mean talk softly, but to act appropriately in the setting. Karla challenges him, noting how funny it is that someone you love can suddenly die, pointing to the absurdity of death. Like corpse-puppets, the dying mothers occasionally deliver lines with their eyes closed, which proves they are mostly playing possum so they can avoid their children and still interfere in their lives.

Definitely a rom-com, but also rough around the edges, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City may ostracize a number of viewers, but it would have everyone else in stitches for a good 90 minutes.

 

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33 comments

  1. It sounds very edgy, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. There are parts of it, just from what you’ve mentioned here, that I’m fairly sure would put me off. But sometimes stories like that can have their funny moments.

  2. Haha – nothing would persuade me to either read or watch this, not even free chocolate! Cancer victims and rape jokes? Good grief – is this what you young things call entertainment? 😉

    • I’m completely put off by the rape jokes, but another person on the script committee says they’re okay because they come from a woman. I’m still not comfortable with them. The cancer part I didn’t mind. One of the mothers is near the end of her time and sleeps almost the whole play, but the other is early in treatment and a crotchety, unforgiving woman. I think the show implies that just because she has cancer doesn’t mean she was ever a good person.

  3. Fascinating. Earlier this year we saw in the theatre a British play called A Pacifist’s Guide to Living with Cancer, which included in the cast a cancer patient. It’s very different to this but was very funny in parts.

    • Thanks, Lou! I was worried the review didn’t say much about the play at all because I gave the script to someone else before I wrote the review and thus didn’t have much to quote or reference.

  4. I can imagine the graphic designers tasked with creating the advertising posters etc, going nuts because of the length of that title…….. Its a play that is going to divide opinions for sure.

    • So far, I’m getting a lot of negative opinions. Another person on the committee was arguing that the rape jokes are not offencive because they’re told by a woman, and largely in connection to her vibrator. I get what he’s saying, and it’s an interesting argument, but I still felt really kind of icky when I was reading the first part of the play.

  5. I love plays like this. Where absurd things happen in totally regular settings. And while this is a bit extreme, it’s still something which *could* happen! I want to know the background of this play. Did it happen in real life on some level? Probably.

    And yes. That title is a mouthful! Having never seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I cannot speak to potential parallels to this classic musical. Are you familiar with it? If so, can you see parallels?

    • I’ve never seen or read a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but every time I tried to type in the name of this play on Goodreads, that name would pop up instead. I would think they had to have something in common. In the play that I read nothing really happened on the way to anything, so it’s kind of an odd title. This further makes me think that they must have some kind of parallels. I don’t know the backstory of this play; I would have to Google it.

  6. Hm, I’d be uncomfortable with the rape jokes, too, unless they were done reallllyy well and I’m not sure how you’d do them well. I love you reading the script and wondering how they, um, achieve certain scenes!

    • No one has yet to convince me that rape jokes are funny, though lots of people try to say that if we restrict certain topics, claiming it isn’t funny or shouldn’t be joked about, that we’re on a slippery slope to getting rid of free speech. It’s not that people like me are saying comedians can’t make rape jokes, it’s that we’re saying we’re not going to support someone’s comedy career if they’re making rape jokes. It’s one of the ways that capitalism does, indeed, work. We voice our opinions with our wallets. I don’t have to fatten the wallet of a comedian I don’t find funny, and who can’t figure out how to be funny without making fun of rape.

  7. I definitely want to see this one – yes, you’re going to have to frame the rape jokes so that they are not totally offensive – but I hope your group performs it, that you film it, and we get to see it on youtube.

    • Ha! Sorry, Bill but IF the committee chose this play, we could not film it. It’s a copyright violation. Guess you’re just going to have to get involved with a civic theater in Australia and convince them to do it!

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