Behind the sickly green medical curtain, two older women lie. Dosed up on painkillers, they are seemingly dead to their surroundings, but their hearts are still beating. The Oncology ward is a suffocating shade of pink and bizarre brightly coloured prints of suggestively arranged flower petals hang above each sleeping head. A young woman sits practicing her “bits”, Karla the aspiring stand up comedian performing to the captive audience of her sleeping mother behind the dividing curtain. Confrontation comes in the form of the brash New Yorker, Don, on the other side, who believes the ward of his dying mother is no place for her vibrator jokes. Is he right? Where is the line between respect for the dead and dying, and seeing the funny side?
Where is the line between respect for the dead and dying, and seeing the funny side?
Halley Feiffer’s writing could not be accused of shying away from the so-called ‘last Taboo’ that is comedy surrounding death. There are plenty of other controversial comedy moments thrown in there for good measure – she is not writing for the easily offended – and this has garnered the play quite a reputation and sell out shows when it debuted in New York earlier this year. It appears the same success has followed it to, and indeed enabled it to come to, the Finborough.
There’s much more to this play however, than laughs. Like some of the best comedy, the laughs lie thinly over bitter truths, truths that we are scared to talk about, exposed by her mordant humour. Our fear of the finality of death. Our unwillingness to address our complex feelings for our mothers. Our shame at our overwhelming sense of being unable to cope.
These lost, grown-up children are imperfectly formed and as their fears spill out, it’s moving, but never spills out onto the overly sentimental. Even crying can be funny, with Halley Feiffer’s wicked way with words and under Bethany Pitts direction. It’s oddly enjoyable in itself to feel the collective uncomfortable feeling in the room when we’re not sure if we ought to laugh or cry. It treads a thin thin line between the two like a sadistic tight rope walker, ducking and twisting for added dramatic effect.
It treads a thin thin line between the two like a sadistic tight rope walker, ducking and twisting for added dramatic effect.
The performance of the night goes to Kristen Milward as Karla’s mother. She captures in an accutely observed way, a difficult mother who can be sanguine one moment and spiteful the next. Death is not easy on anyone involved, but here we see the agony of being left behind by the pillar of stability, and instability, in your life. A mother who wasn’t always a mother to her daughter, “Sometimes I wish she would just die” she bitterly reflects. Feiffer once again doesn’t pull any punches.
Laughter (even the filthy, offensive kind) is presented as a remedy and a healer to us, as sad and imperfect humans. It’s profoundly affecting to see the way cancer eats away at a sense of humour and leaves anger and fear in its place. But it can be replaced – If we can learn to laugh in the face of death.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City, The Finborough Theatre, October 2 – 27.
Image credit: Photo: Tristram Kenton

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