Jenny Allen in I Got Sick Then I Got Better
(© Joan Marcus)
Jenny Allen in I Got Sick Then I Got Better
(© Joan Marcus)
Ovarian cancer isn't a subject you normally laugh about, but you'd be hard-pressed not to do so as Jenny Allen hilariously relates her experience with the disease in her excellent solo show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, which is being presented by New York Theatre Workshop at the 4th Street Theatre.

It's not that Allen takes her illness lightly -- far from it. Rather, she has the uncanny ability to talk about her experience with a warmth and congeniality that is completely disarming. This begins even before the show officially commences, as Allen greets audience members and chats with them informally. Even when she gets onstage, her opening speech sounds off-the-cuff, and the house lights are initially only slightly dimmed, enabling Allen to make direct eye contact with attendees.

While most of the stories that Allen relates have to do with her cancer -- including its diagnosis, treatment, and remission -- the show is most insightful when it comes to the way her illness affected her relationship to her family: her husband, the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and daughters Halley and Julie. In particular, she's remarkably candid when it comes to what she felt were her husband's shortcomings. "He doesn't do tender that well," she says in one of many understated utterances that typify her vocal delivery.

Allen, a seasoned journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine and Vogue, has an elegant command of language, vividly recounting her experiences while inserting liberal doses of humor along the way. She excels in a kind of wry irony that combines wit with a keen attention to detail. Some of the evening's highlights include an account of her time at a Raw Food Movement retreat, and her varied vocal spoofs of friends who kept telling her "You look great!"

The 80-minute performance is excellently paced, slowing down and speeding up as the narrative requires, thanks in part to the work of co-directors James Lapine and Darren Katz. Still, its Allen's luminous yet down-to-earth performance that will rightly linger in the minds of theatergoers.