Cancer is not something to joke about. Or is it..? Written by Halley Feiffer and directed by Bethany Pitts, it’s fair to say that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynaecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is dark, even for a black comedy. Karla (Cariad Lloyd) sits with her sleeping mother, trying out her stand-up comedy material to her ‘silent audience’. On the other side of the curtain in the room, Don (Rob Crouch) sits quietly while he visits his dying mother (Cara Chase). However, the sort of things that Karla talks about openly strikes Don as being highly inappropriate – especially because of their whereabouts and his mother present in the same room. Words are exchanged between Don and Karla, as neither sees the other’s point of view. But even here where miracles don’t take place, the world does turn…
A Funny Thing asks a number of questions about humour and about the appropriateness of subject matter – something that has an uneasy relationship with PC sensibilities. Karla’s mother Marcie (Kristin Millward) makes a point later in the play that as someone suffering from cancer, she can make oncological jokes. Her argument being, a person with a terminal disease can joke about dying, a Jewish person can make Jewish jokes and so on. In Karla’s case nothing is ‘taboo’, so while her dreams about her vibrator in lieu of a sex life aren’t risqué by modern standards, ‘joking’ about rape is a different matter, especially in our post-#MeToo world.
The play was written before the #MeToo movement took place, so that may account for its more challenging elements. Don as a character always lets Marcie know when he’s about to give her water, so that he has her ‘consent’. She, however, finds this tiresome and thinks his earlier ‘reaction’ to the ‘rape’ element of Karla’s joke is because he’s been accused in the past. Don later has an explanation for his respectful demeanour, but one could argue anyone would feel uncomfortable at ‘flippant’ references to rape. The real question in the play is why are Karla and Marcie so caustic? And why do they seemingly have no sensitivity to anything that’s potentially upsetting or taboo?
When we first meet Karla, her confrontational demeanour is bewildering and frankly hard to sympathise with. However, once her relationship with Marcie is explored, the penny drops and we see how their relationship has coalesced, following the ‘absence’ of Karla’s sister. Driven to take care of others in her role as a social worker, Marcie ‘switches off’ the voices in her head by watching factual programmes that deal with sexual assaults – programmes that Karla’s got into the habit of watching too. Using ‘distractions’ such as this to drown out their respective ‘demons’, it’s small wonder that they become desensitised to the horrific things in the world. Or are they..?
While the events of the play eventually point to their relationship, it is through the character of Don that their respective ‘breakthroughs’ are facilitated. Much like the mother and daughter, first appearences with Don are misleading, and the ups and downs of his relaltionships help put the difficulties between Karla and Marcie into perspective.
Unfettered by restraint, mother and daughter can talk about anything and everything – excepts their deepest fears. But to do that would mean allowing themselves to be vulnerable and acknowledging the other feelings that have been locked away…
© Michael Davis 2018
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynaecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City runs at Finborough Theatre until 27th October.