As anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital room knows, the laughs are few. On opening night of Halley Feiffer's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City" at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Tuesday, the audience filing in did not think otherwise: two beds separated by a curtain, two people asleep, a set so familiarly appointed, prepared for the worst, you might think nothing comic could happen here, not even on the television monitor perched above woman stage left, until you see Karla (Beth Behrs of tv's "2 Broke Girls"), in oversized sweater and goofy knit cap, as she moves antic testing a monologue for her stand-up act. (Picture: a younger Sandra Bernhard.) With mom (Lisa Emery) in bed, Karla's got a captive if comatose audience. As she contemplates--loud--the joys of rape with her vibrator, an anguished schlep named Don (Erik Lochtefeld) enters stage right to usher his mom (Jacqueline Sydney) to her final rest. For Feiffer, and for director Trip Cullman, it's a set up made in comedy heaven.
You could say mixing the terrors and pain of illness with humor is part of Halley Feiffer's DNA. Her mother, Jenny Allen, had cancer and performed a one-woman show, "I Got Sick and Then I Got Better." "I had the idea for the play when I was in the hospital with her," Feiffer told me when I caught up with her at the Sushi Samba after party. "I had the fantasy that I could have an affair with the son of her hospital roommate."
Where can the sex--raucous and hilariously chatty--in a sea green bathroom lead? When Karla and her mother, joined by Don, watch "Law & Order" on television, the play could have ended with a communal moment. Feiffer said Trip Cullman and MCC suggested she explore the mother-daughter relationship a tad farther. The result is an extremely satisfying and moving end.
"Collaborating made me better at what I do," Feiffer said, as was working with Beth Behrs who told me that after she read the script, she laughed aloud and sobbed. Her agent wanted her to Skype an audition. Instead, she flew herself from LA to New York to try out.
What does performing this part teach you about your relationship with your mother? I asked. Said Behrs, "My mother is a teacher, and very kind, unlike the play's mom. This play makes me think about how awful it would be to lose her to cancer. And there's that beautiful monologue about Karla and a man in the subway trading ear buds, listening to each other's music. It's about vital human connection. Halley captures that."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.