When you think of things that make you laugh, ovarian cancer is probably not on the list. But the latest production at Dezart Performs manages to make the issues surrounding it often side-splittingly funny: 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 is sad, touching, surprisingly raunchy and often hilarious.
As the play opens, we see two 60-something women in bed in a hospital room. Marcie (Deborah Harmon) is being visited by her 30-something daughter, Karla (Aviva Pressman), a struggling standup comedian. Though her mother is asleep, Karla is talking to her nonstop, trying out very blue comedy bits about the relative virtues of sex with a vibrator versus a real man.
The other comatose patient, Geena (Barbara Niles), soon gets a visitor. It is her son, Don (Eric Zaklukiewicz), who is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, and his hostile and entitled teenaged son. Don is shocked by Karla’s racy monologue, and asks her to quiet down. Thus begins a contentious relationship between the two.
After some banter filled with barbs and veiled insults, they eventually get to know each other. They are both terribly lonely. Karla is a former drug addict, hiding a family tragedy and trying to forge her standup career. Her relationship with her bed-ridden mother (who had successful surgery and will likely survive) is strained. Don, a wealthy dotcom creator, is a dutiful Jewish son, full of angst over his failed marriage and his surly son. His mother is losing her seven-year battle with terminal cancer. Karla and Don form a bond; while I don’t want to give too much away, I will say there’s a fairly graphic and very funny sex scene.
The cast is terrific. Aviva Pressman’s Karla is big, bold, loud and colorful. Tall, curvy and opinionated, she makes her presence known in any room. She longs for a man in her life and a warmer connection with her mother, but that pain is hidden behind a façade of jokes. One moment, the audience is stunned by her brazenness and explicit humor; the next, we want to give her a hug.
As Don, Eric Zaklukiewicz is fabulous. Rich, but frazzled and worn down by life, he is just trying to keep it all together. He is living proof of one of his best lines: “Money doesn’t make you as happy as you think it will.” Zaklukiewicz is quite funny, and very lovable.
The always-dependable Deborah Harmon is perfect as Karla’s cantankerous mother, Marcie. From her startling opening lines when we realize she’s actually awake and aware of everything happening in the room, she has us hooked. Marcie is sarcastic and smart as a whip; it’s easy to see where Karla got her wit. Though the two women snipe and jab at each other, we sense there really is love underneath it all.
Barbara Niles has a tough job as Don’s comatose mother, Geena. It’s not easy to play someone who is unconscious through most of the play while still maintaining a presence onstage. Through her facial expressions, occasional moans and a couple of lines, Niles lets us know it’s not just a shell in that bed—there’s still a human being in there.
Randy Brenner proves his skill as a director here, eliciting strong performances from his actors. Given the setting and the subject matter, this play could easily come across as either stodgy or too heavy-handed with the humor. Brenner avoids both pitfalls.
As always, Jimmy Cuomo’s set is superb. Congrats to Phil Murphy, Clark Dugger and Shon LeBlanc for lights, sound and costumes, respectively.
Dezart’s A Funny Thing is a small, intimate, powerful piece of theater. It touches on, well, just about everything—sex, money, illness, career struggles and family dynamics. It reminds us that even in the face of grief and enormous loss, love and human connection can pull us through.
Dezart Performs’ production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 12, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $45, and the show runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.