Evan Handler may not be the first actor to turn his own life and death battle with cancer into a one-man show, but his landmark 1993 play Time on Fire certainly was one of the earliest, most harrowing and triumphant of such works. Now, after 25 more years of a life that he did not necessarily expect to live, Handler has returned to Time on Fire, bringing the show full circle for a highly limited run at the United Solo Festival. Two performances remain, on October 21 and November 17 at Theater Row.
The return of Time on Fire is not a revival but rather a new piece of writing in which Handler incorporates much of the original, while exploring his post-leukemia second act: his marriage and the “miraculous conception” of his daughter after doctors assured him that the bone marrow transplant which had saved him also had rendered him sterile.
“I emerged from my illness precocious in all the worst ways and left behind in many important ways,” observes the former Sex and the City and Fosse/Verdon star, who is currently a regular on the Starz hit, Power, but who was a very busy Broadway stage actor for the bulk of his pre-illness years and immediately after, including the Neil Simon plays Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues (which he left upon falling ill) and Broadway Bound (which he left after a 1987 cancer recurrence), as well as Six Degrees of Separation and I Hate Hamlet. “I was precocious in my knowledge of mortality and the looming end of everything, which most people in their late-20s aren’t,” he points out. “Yet, I missed a good part of those years, when people are just dating and learning how to make longer, stable relationships in their 30s. So, I kind of floundered.
“In my early-40s, I met a woman who seemed different. She wasn’t American, she was from Italy. She wasn’t in the entertainment industry; she was just very ‘other’ in all kinds of ways. I really pursued Elisa, but within two months of meeting each other and seeing a lot of each other, but not knowing each other very well, she became pregnant. Which was not supposed to be possible.
“We didn’t feel our relationship could survive uniting simply because of a pregnancy,” Handler admits. “So, we wound up stuck with the devastating prospect of terminating what was essentially a miraculous conception.
“It was a brutal decision. But what made it even more brutal, and I talk about this in the show, is that getting an abortion was tremendously difficult, even in New York City in what was then 2003, even as one of the stars of Sex and the City, the most sexually progressive television show practically in the history of television,” Handler continues. “The attitude of the doctors we saw made it a stigmatizing, shameful, and frightening thing to go through. I think it’s important for me to retell that story onstage now, as a man, saying: I participated in this and it was much more difficult than it ever should be. Imagine what a woman, alone, of far less privilege, goes through. Especially now.”
The first Time on Fire was a furiously compelling, often fiercely hilarious saga of medical outrages, of insensitive nurses and uncaring doctors, of dehumanizing treatment and, in the end, of salvation, as Handler finally checks himself out of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and into John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where his life is saved by what was then an extremely new and experimental treatment.
The new Time on Fire is a similarly gripping medical and emotional rollercoaster with a phenomenally happy ending that also happens to be true.
“When I was first hospitalized in 1985, I asked for a laptop computer,” Handler recalls. “My father bought me one of the first; it was bigger than a table. It was MS DOS, with big floppy discs. And I started typing my thoughts.
“I only lived for that blinking cursor screen. I think it was 1990 when I finally brought those floppy disks to the offices at Lincoln Center Theatre, where I was in Six Degrees of Separation. I asked if I could print them. And I read, for the first time, things that I had written in the hospital.”
Those first readings were piercing for Handler and he began to bring his work to Naked Angels’ Tuesdays at 9 reading series—more as an experiment. “I discovered that the response from 75 people on Tuesday nights was exactly what I’d imagined in my head,” he says. “I was able to put the audience right there with me; laugh at stuff even though it was horrible, be plunged into silence, horrified about what they had just been laughing at, and then forget the horror and laugh all over again.”
Handler’s original Time on Fire was produced by Second Stage Theater in 1993. He then turned it into a book in 1996. He wrote about some of his post-cancer life in a 2008 volume titled It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News About Being Alive.
The full story, however, start to finish, has never been told before. It truly comes alive onstage when Handler himself tells it.
“Elisa and I married in 2003, almost nine months exactly after her first pregnancy. Our daughter Sophia was born January 17, 2007.” He smiles. “She was a miracle. Literally. If you want to know why and how, well, that’s the play.”
Look back on Handler’s time in Fosse/Verdon in the video below: