Theater Reviews: Cancer and Racism Made Funny, via Halley Feiffer and Dick Gregory

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose. Photo: Monique Carboni

Only now am I beginning to catch up with a number of late-season Off Broadway openings that got sucked into Broadway’s Tony-awards vortex. Even shows as self-consciously attention-seeking as Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, produced by MCC Theater, failed to make much of an impression. Perhaps that’s not just the Tonys’ fault; the whole undertaking, like its ungainly title, seemed to work very hard at making something potentially tasty into something all but unswallowable. The sitcom setup is a good example. Don, a sad-sack tech billionaire, pays a visit to his dying mother in a semi-private room on the title ward. Behind the curtain in the other half of the room, Karla, an aspiring comedian, is visiting her mother, too, and passing the time as she sleeps by working on new material. “I’m in bed, dripping wet, waiting for my vibrator to come fuck me,” Karla ad libs. Don’s sad eyes pop wide. Uh-oh!

The meet-cute thus established, albeit at the cost of any believable characterization, the relationship proceeds in predictable ways from loathing to curiosity and beyond. Beth Behrs as Karla and especially Erik Lochtefeld as Don do their best to humanize the whistle-in-the-dark dialogue, but they can’t override the sensation that the playwright, too, is just trying out gags. Presumably, Feiffer is trying to repurpose sitcom tropes to get at the anxieties beneath our daily joking about death, but you can’t exploit and explode something at the same time. (Style also outran character in her play I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard at the Atlantic last year.) It’s only when she unsticks herself from the genre trap, and stops playing with predictability, that A Funny Thing (as I’ll call it because I am not paid by the word) seems to get anywhere. That happens when Karla’s mother, Marcie, marvelously embodied by Lisa Emery, awakens; she’s a tough bird whose aggressive humor seems more like an immune response than Karla’s merely neurotic decoration. Emery is so good she explains not only herself but her daughter. Still, playwriting exigencies eventually defeat her, and the play ends on a false note of rapprochement. This is one of many things a director — in this case Trip Cullman — should have red-penciled. Feiffer is a playwright to watch, in both senses.

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Turn Me Loose is subtitled A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory, which is accurate except for the “play” part. Gregory, one of the first crossover black comedians and surely the most radical, was — and remains, at 83 — some kind of genius. Formal wit allowed him to sneak difficult truths about racism into the ears of white America: “I know the South very well,” goes one of his early jokes. “I spent 20 years there one night.” And the show is indeed “about” him. (One other actor, playing a series of hecklers and other objectionables, serves as a kind of multipurpose tool.) Jumping around in time from 1963 to the present, the evening offers enough of a biographical sketch to explain how he came by his insights and anger. Under the circumstances it’s even possible to forgive the overreaching that aims for hagiography and lands in bathos. Surely it is sufficiently horrible, for instance, that his son, Richard Jr., dies in 1963 at 2 months of age; must it be suggested that the tragedy was ordained by the universe as a means of sparing Gregory himself? (He says he might otherwise have been killed with Medgar Evers, who was assassinated two weeks later.) Far more useful and awful to know what Gregory later joked he would name another son if he had one. It’s also the name of his 1964 autobiography.

My quibble with all this as a play is that it’s not so much a work of drama, with a crisis and resolution, as it is a nightclub act; there are different tonalities but not much shape. That’s inevitable when almost the entire show, and certainly everything that is excellent in it, is Gregory’s own work, transcribed and shuffled around. (The 90-minute script is credited to Gretchen Law.) Furthermore, the selection of material emphasizes ideas about race that few in a New York audience would now disagree with; as for newer themes, we get a taste of Gregory’s nutritional evangelism (he calls himself a “breathatarian”) but his 9/11 conspiracy theories are, perhaps wisely, omitted.

On the other hand, Joe Morton, a Broadway veteran and more recently a star of Scandal, is so commanding and ingratiating as Gregory that he could probably convince the audience of anything. He brilliantly conveys the fury that fuels the humor, and the exhaustion that eventually no longer does. Indeed, the best of the comic’s one-liners comes at the end of a story about a frail old Mississippi man, “the kind of big-lipped, kinky-haired verb buster that everyone looks down on.” This man goes to jail for the cause, only to find, when he emerges, that his wife has died. Morton — or is it Gregory? — stares down the audience, which is nervously awaiting some kind of punch line, and after a long pause finally asks, “Is there a joke in there that I missed?”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 25.
Turn Me Loose is at the Westside Theatre through July 17.