Review: You Will Get Sick Is a Buddy Comedy About Terminal Illness
Noah Diaz's plays fascinates and confounds in this Roundabout production.
If there's been a more off-putting play title in the post-pandemic than You Will Get Sick, I haven't heard it. Please, it beckons, crowd into a subterranean theater with 400 strangers (all still masked) and contemplate illness. It's a hard sell for even those of us, like me, who have ceased to worry about Covid. But if you give this Roundabout Theatre Company world premiere by Noah Diaz a chance, you will find a delightfully strange new play full of magic and wonder. I'm still wondering about it right now.
Since Diaz chooses not to name his characters and only gives them numbers (Daniel K. Isaac plays #1, Linda Lavin plays #2, etc.), I will be referring to the characters by the names of the actors who play them.
Superficially, You Will Get Sick is about Daniel K. Isaac, who has recently been diagnosed with a rare terminal illness. He puts up some tear-off fliers (something you might see next to a "Dan Smith will teach you guitar" sign) promising $20 to whoever will call him and listen to him talk about it. He has discussed his condition only with his doctors, and BetterHelp seems to not be an option (maybe he's not a podcast listener).
Struggling actor Linda Lavin answers the advertisement and collects her fee. Following this successful transaction, Isaac hires her for another gig: breaking the news to his sister, Marinda Anderson (who nimbly juggles several other roles). This leads to more gigs (all paid for à la carte) and a visit to Linda's acting class, where they roll around on the floor and pretend to be apex predator cats. It seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship based on the short-term sale of labor — just like working in the theater!
Lavin and Isaac make this feel like a high-concept buddy comedy, with Isaac deftly mixing light and dark with his understated performance. Lavin, a six-decade stage veteran, is especially good at adding crackle to every line, our laughter erupting involuntarily as she sweetly tells Isaac, "Yeah, fuck you too."
The dynamic and precise Nate Miller plays multiple other characters (a crying waiter, a street salesman, Isaac's ex-boyfriend) in a city that feels a lot like New York, but isn't. Also, the world seems to be plagued by giant prehistoric birds who snatch people off the street, leading to the blossoming of an entirely new category of insurance.
All of this is overlaid with Dario Ladani Sanchez's narration, a pleasant public radio voiceover that offers little details about the story in the present tense, not all of which correspond to what we're seeing onstage. "She's holding an umbrella," he purrs. But she's not.
Surely director Sam Pinkleton has a good reason for this discrepancy, although I couldn't tell you what it is. Best known as a choreographer (for The Great Comet and Significant Other), Pinkleton's staging is sharp and specific in every moment, lulling us into the assumption that we know the rules of this play, only to blindside us with one of Skylar Fox's jaw-dropping illusions. Cha See's aggressive lighting and Lee Kinney's sound design (which actually makes us worry we're having a stroke) also help to create a world that is profoundly disorienting.
The costumes (by Alicia Austin and Michael Krass) offer the potential for some backstory for those who desire it: One can practically smell the rent-controlled apartment in Lavin's purple velour tracksuit and teased hair (by Tommy Kurzman). The central feature of the set (by the design collective dots) resembles the steam room at an expensive gym, a choice that emphasizes one small section of Isaac's journey (when he's taking a shower) at the expense of all others. Pinkleton and the actors easily sell the other locations, but we wonder why the shower, with its slate gray tiles, is ever-present. Could it be that everything we're witnessing is the hallucination of a man who has collapsed in his bathroom and has yet to regain consciousness? I suppose that depends on whether you're a body-half-sick or body-half-well kind of person.
While much of You Will Get Sick hovers in a cloud of ambiguity, Diaz is crystal clear about his attitude toward illness, which is similar to that of Susan Sontag: "I got sick," Isaac says late in the play, a broad smile on his face, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders through this simple omission. "You got sick," Sanchez responds, "that's all." And yes. That is all.
Diaz, who wrote You Will Get Sick before the Covid pandemic, seems to be responding to the very American notion that the ill are somehow responsible for their condition, an idea that reached the pinnacle of cruelty during the AIDS crisis and was still quite salient in the Covid years. Those who never contracted the virus began to see themselves as something akin to the Protestant "elect," saved by amazing grace and their rigorous adherence to mask and vaccination policies (surely Omicron let a lot of these people know they were going straight to hell).
Diaz also has something to say about the gig economy, which allowed so many of the elect to stay home while essential workers risked illness to deliver their food and packages. In its own roundabout way, this surreal new comedy might also be the most searingly astute drama of the Covid era.