In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, a foul-mouthed comedian played by television star Beth Behrs meets a middle-aged man played by Erik Lochtefeld. The way they meet, however, is not so romantic. Their mothers are hospital roommates…and both have cancer.
What inspired the unlikely love story? “It’s a story in which I don’t come across very well,” explains playwright Halley Feiffer. Yet, her Funny Thing… makes its world premiere this month, opening Off-Broadway with MCC Theater June 7.
“My mom [writer, actor and comedian Jenny Allen] was sick with cancer—she’s in really good health today, which is amazing—and she wrote her own play [I Got Sick Then I Got Better] about the experience, which was at New York Theatre Workshop,” she continues, “so we’re both able to find humor in the painful experience. When I was with her in the hospital, I was a college student, and I was pretty self-involved. I found myself having this fantasy: ‘Wouldn’t it be so romantic if I met some guy, who was the son of my mom’s roommate, in the hospital?’ And, as soon as I had that thought, I was like, ‘That’s a terrible thought! You’re a terrible person!’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe that’ll be a funny thing to write a play about,’ so I held onto the idea for several years.”
A Funny Thing… began performances downtown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre May 19 starring 2 Broke Girls star Behrs and Lochtefeld with Lisa Emery and Jacqueline Sydney as their mothers. One has ovarian cancer, and one has endometrial cancer.
It’s quite heavy material for Behrs’ New York stage debut, but she was very attached to the project from its onset.
“They sent me this, and I read it, and I was laughing out loud and could not stop crying for like an hour after,” says Behrs. “I came and auditioned and was telling myself, ‘If I don’t get this, I think it’s going to be the most heartbroken I’ve ever been about a role in my life.’ Halley is incredible, and her writing is so real to how we actually talk and process, so as an actor, it’s a dream.”
Though Behrs hasn’t had any unlikely hospital encounters like her character in A Funny Thing…, her sibling has. “My little sister is training to be a nurse,” she says, “and she is working with very sick patients right now, and one of them grabbed her boob the other day, and that was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Like, she can’t be mad! He’s so sick, but he was super into her, and he’s like 85…”
For playwright Feiffer, her experience in the hospital room brought her closer to her mother.
“I had been at college,” she explains, “so I hadn’t been spending a lot of time with my family, and then I had this very concentrated several days with my mother where I felt like we were really able to bond in a way that felt really beautiful and unexpected, and that’s what I really wanted to tap into. I didn’t expect it because I felt that the experience would be very challenging, and it really was, but there was so much beauty that came out of it, too. Not to get too dark, but when people die, there is so much beauty that comes from going to the funeral and bonding with people you won’t have otherwise, so that’s what I wanted to write about—from a grey area of being in tragedy and sickness.
“I lean on humor as a primary coping tool. I find that no matter how painful the circumstances are, if I can find a way to make myself laugh about it, it’s so much easier to walk through any kind of challenges. The way I experience life is that it’s not black or white, it’s not easy or hard, it’s not joyous or terrible… I can find joy in pain, and I can definitely find a way to make a joyous experience painful—I’m very good at that! I wish I weren’t. That’s what I wanted to explore—that co-mingling of those two experiences. But, I do find that if you’re able to find the humor and the joy and the lightness even in really bleak circumstances, that’s arguably the best balm for the pain.”