Death is the price we all pay for our lives. Cancer is one of the most unpleasant ways of going towards it. A cruel reminder that life is an unfair and unjust journey for the people who suffer and for those people left behind.
Stand-up comedian Karla meets Don and they become acquainted with each other in the cancer unit of a New York hospital. While Don has come here every day for seven years in the hope of his mother getting better while often not getting any reaction at all, Karla on the other hand consults her mother on her new crass comedy routine. As well as Don’s mother Karla’s shows no reaction other than drug-related moans, but Karla does not seem to mind and understands coughs and shivers as encouragement of her writing.
An argument arises between the two visitors about what should and should not be said if people that are close to death are present but Karla and Don know they will meet again the next day and probably the day after as well. Many life stories are being exchanged now they won’t escape each other and a simple message trumps above all: Cynicism will not get you anywhere and it will not solve anything as it is always an attempt of covering up desperation and admiration. It doesn’t take long for Don to discover that Karla’s (also) foulmouthed mother is a bully who never sees anything good in her daughter’s way of life – and that not once they did sit together to discuss Karla’s work. Amongst other undiscussed dramas from the past, there is also her sister’s drug-related death, and a pile of debt looming should she not survive the therapy.
Recently dumped Don is in the comfortable position not to have to work anymore after having sold his start up – he is far from being a happy man though.
With death being present every day Karla and Don learn that life is what they have in common and that you need to embrace it in the time you have. This leads not only to bitter tears of realisation (I welled up) but also to one of the funniest sex scenes ever been performed on stage and conversations full of warmth spreading through every corner of the hospital ward and towards the audience.
And then the play achieves yet another little miracle: The big C gets pushed into the background and the maybe strongest moment of the play is when Don eventually comes back from his mother’s funeral. He shares how relieved he was to have seen his son – after two years he would still not talk to his Father but he wore a suit without behaving silly; enough proof for Don that he raised some one being able to function as an adult. Don realises that he is not a failure and Karla’s mother assures him. Only afterwards she finds the energy to take her own daughter serious – and to tell her.
All topics touched here are complex topics of complex characters with complex life stories and one wonders afterwards how all of this has been fit into 90 minutes.
When I was asked to review a romcom about cancer I hesitated initially – I was too annoyed with my recent memory of The Book Of Mormon who claimed touching taboo subjects but lacked substance.
Halley Feiffer’s play tonight has proven that devastating topics can be the subject of fun on stage. It is being shown in Europe for the first time and everyone should go and see it – I do not believe that there was one single audience member who had not lost anyone to this unjust illness.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City – written by Halley Feiffer, directed by Bethany Pitts
Tickets from GBP 16
Playing at the Finborough Theatre near Earls Court underground station until October 27th