If you or a loved one has struggled with cancer, then gathering in a room to see it painfully re-enacted in the Vital Theatre’s production of Andrea Lepcio’s Looking for the Pony, now at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, may be a consoling experience. Others, however, may find the work more effective as therapy than theater.
In its favor, Looking for the Pony has more vitality than the average soggy entry in the genre. The focus on two sisters (played by Deirdre O’Connell and J. Smith-Cameron) — one of whom has breast cancer — approaches the issues of love and loss without the weight of romantic cliche. There is also an emphasis on comedy, largely through the various caricatures of doctors, friends, and family members. The point of the play, it seems, is to show the resourcefulness of the human spirit.
Yet while Looking for the Pony jokes about the books that take you through the phases of cancer, that’s ultimately all the play does. It begins with the lump, ends just after the funeral, and in between depicts the sad progression from life to death. Moreover, the interplay of the work’s disparate elements — direct address, tearful realism, and comic relief — is neither comfortably conceived in Lepcio’s writing nor realized in Stephan Golux’s ill-paced direction. Over time, the strained attempts at quirky theatricality are abandoned, and the play becomes more and more about the slog to the grave.
In the process, Looking for the Pony wastes the talents of Smith-Cameron and O’Connell. Their main job is to summon tears — and although they do so marvelously, I’d rather see them challenged by better material. Playing all the supporting roles, Lori Funk and Debargo Sanyal both have a droll touch; Sanyal, in particular, has become an increasingly welcome comic presence on the New York stage. And while the duo wring all there is to be had out of their many characters, that isn’t saying much.