Since the beginning of theater, playwrights have sought unlikely subjects as fodder for their comedies, reaching back to Aristophanes’ 411 B.C.E. hit “Lysistrata,” which got laughs out of a woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from men.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” which opened at the City Theatre on Sept. 23 and runs through Oct. 15, is set in its entirety in a hospital room, where a young female stand-up comic sitting at her mother’s bedside, becomes romantically — or at least sexually — involved with the schlumpy older man visiting his mother on the other side of the curtain dividing the room.
The play, written by Halley Feiffer — daughter of Jewish syndicated cartoonist Jules Feiffer — is described as a “meet-cute for the modern era” in the show’s promotional materials.
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, the show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, going for laughs with bawdy jokes about rape and vibrators, and raping vibrators, then suddenly shifting tone for reflection on the pull and value of family.
“There is this thing in the play that is kind of subtle, but that means a lot to me,” Brody said. “The characters in the play are often cruel or angry, or hard on one another. It’s not a soft play, and it’s not a soft place. Hospitals are cold and sterile, and they’re hard. And part of the journey of the play is about the generosity that it takes to allow someone to help you.”
There is beauty in the play, Brody said, exposing the “generosity and the vulnerability that comes from allowing yourself to accept help, especially in the most dire circumstances.”
“A Funny Thing Happened …” is not an easy play to do, he said, “because it’s a comedy, but it’s a comedy about cancer. I try really, really hard to do both in the play, to allow the funny to be funny, and in moments of grief there are often moments of laughter.”
Although no one in the cast is Jewish, Brody, who is Jewish, spent some time talking to them about the shiva process, he said, and how that very serious ritual sometimes encompasses comedy as well.
“Sitting shiva is like this beautiful ritual and rite, and I find it an incredibly effective form of mourning,” he said. “But specifically, it’s also absurd. You’re sitting there for so long, and at some point, something really funny happens, and at some point, there’s your relative who comes in who is really just there for the cold cuts. And so, everyone starts to talk about that, and everyone’s had a few too many glasses of wine, and then the rabbi comes to say prayers that night, but at that point, you’re not really sure what you’re doing there.
“Sitting shiva for my grandfather, I was incredibly sad, but there were all these amazing moments,” Brody continued. “I had these little cousins, and to them it was a family party. They didn’t know what was going on. And there is something beautiful about that. That child doesn’t need to be scolded; that child is just happy and is running around the house. I think all of that exists in the experience of death and the experience of grieving.”
The role of family dynamics in a palliative care setting was examined in a talkback panel following the Oct. 3 performance of the show. Arranged by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which is a financial supporter of the City Theatre, the panel included two cast members and two health care professionals: Dr. Yael Schenker, who specializes in palliative care and oncology at UPMC, and Dr. Sarah Taylor, who works in early clinical trials for treatments of gynecologic cancer.
About 20 audience members stayed for the brief panel discussion, which was moderated by Nancy Zionts, COO and chief program officer of the JHF. Zionts began the discussion by inquiring of the experts how “family dynamics come into play” after a cancer diagnosis.
“Remember, the diagnosis not only affects the person who walks in the door with it, but has a tremendous effect on the rest of the family,” explained Taylor. “Everyone will have a different reaction to the word ‘cancer,’ and how terrifying that will be.”
When a family has gathered to cope with the potential loss of a loved one, they bring decades of emotional baggage with them, according to Schenker. There is no one blueprint to predict how the members of a family will react, or how they should react, when dealing with cancer and imminent death.
“I think there are normal families,” said Schenker. “We certainly don’t see them in palliative care.”
Despite the interfamilial relationships, what she “loves best” about her job, she said, “is figuring out who that person is in that bed — and the family helps with that.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at