Humor may not heal but it helps in Halley Feiffer’s acerbic cancer comedy.
Karla (Mary Williamson), a twentysomething stand-up, opens Halley Feiffer’s off-kilter comedy by workshopping raunchy new jokes for a captive audience. The setting is a hospital room in the cancer ward of Feiffer’s absurdly long title, and Karla is testing out bits about her apparently lackluster sex life while watching over her mother, Marcie (Meg Thalken), who’s both a patient in the ward and entirely unconscious. What Karla doesn’t register is that Don (Stef Tovar), the middle-aged son of Marcie’s comatose roommate, Geena (Judy Lea Steele), has entered the room on the other side of the privacy curtain separating the beds; Don is understandably perplexed and incensed by the lewd monologue about vibrators emanating from across the room.
It’s a very funny introductory scene to set up an unlikely relationship of circumstance that deepens as Karla and Don spend more time in each other’s presence. Backstory reveals itself fairly naturally: Don’s shabby, unshaven exterior belies his status as a startup millionaire but accurately reflects his battered psyche; he’s reeling from a divorce, estranged from his teenage son and has little to do but watch his mother decline. Karla’s comedy, meanwhile, is cast as deflective armor; when Marcie wakes up, she treats her attendant daughter with casual cruelty and condescension, which is perhaps partially explained by the revelation of Karla’s deceased sister.
Williamson has long excelled at finding intriguing cracks in the demeanors of characters that tend toward snarky, sour and smart. Karla fits that profile, to be sure, but it’s gratifying to see Williamson also get to play her breaking down under pressure and grief; her performance shows impressive range. Tovar is fine in a less richly drawn role that almost inevitably turns white-knight. It’s mildly disappointing that Feiffer takes the two characters down Romcom Road—just once, it might be nice to see a middle-aged man and younger woman benefit from a platonic relationship—but that’s no fault of this sharp cast or of Keira Fromm’s warm production, which fully understands the meaning of laughing just to keep from crying.
Route 66 Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. By Halley Feiffer. Directed by Keira Fromm. With Mary Williamson, Stef Tovar, Meg Thalken, Judy Lea Steele. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.