A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City tosses around the word "funny" often. Besides landing in the title itself, the characters constantly tell others they are funny, declare that they themselves are funny, and attempt funny jokes. Unfortunately, this constant reminder throughout the 80 minutes only hammers home to the audience how unfunny this comedy truly is. Unsuccessfully attempting to mix pathos with humor, A Funny Thing… fails to engross or enliven.
Two mothers lie unconscious in a cancer ward. Their children, Karla (Feiffer) and Don (Jason Butler Harner), meet cute between a curtain that separates the beds of their parents. While Karla works out her comedy routine for a stand-up show, joking about vibrators and rape, the distraught Don becomes livid. They argue, share stories, yell some more, have sex, tell stories, and fall in love. Meanwhile, Karla's mother, Marcie (JoBeth Williams), regains consciousness and reveals herself to be a cold and hostile parent to her insecure daughter.
A play with such uncomfortable and unhappy characters needs to be razor-sharp with insightful and pitch-black humor, but Feiffer's comedy feels more like re-churned 1960s Neil Simon. The three prominent characters are stereotypical neurotics who stab each other with insults, but none of the ribbing sounds fresh or wise. Feiffer does offer a few clever bits, like allowing her character to babble while Don performs oral sex on her in the hospital bathroom, but it's only the act of rambling that leads to laughs, not actually what she says.
Feiffer's performance lacks a sense of grounding for the audience to empathize. Like her character, she always seems to be performing. Butler Harner brings harried energy to Don, someone always on the brink of a breakdown. Filled with tics and overflowing empathy, he turns what could have been a simple New Yorker stereotype into a relatable human being. Williams gives a humanity to her role that allows Marcie to rise above being a gargoyle of a human being. It's apparent in her reading that her barbs at her character's daughter are rooted in pain, not just cruelty.
Director Trip Cullman is hampered by the uneven script, but he allows a hyper energy to keep the audience as engaged as possible. The set, by Lauren Helpern, is a realistic, sterile hospital room, complete with puce-colored walls, curtains on chain tracks, and fluorescents and sconces emitting dull, barely luminescing lighting. Costume designer David Kay Mickelsen interprets the characters through clothing, including Don's formless sweatpants, his dapper suit at the play's end, and Karla's lackadaisical approach to dressing exemplified by her overalls. Even Butler Harner's unkempt hair, with its tinting grown out and grayed over, visually illustrates the character's past few months of despair.
Watching the person who nurtured you and loved you unconditionally deteriorate before your very eyes is the stuff of nightmares. While there is dark comedy to be mined from some of the moments, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City never rises high enough to allow audiences to feel the pain or release the defensive laughter.