When the playwright becomes the star: How one writer is jumping from her script onto the stage

Playwright Halley Feiffer is wearing a truly hideous sweater. Gaudy flowers crowd the neck, and festive green-yarn fringe spills like seaweed off the sleeves. The words “Mele Kalikimaka” are knitted into the waist.

As a costume for the character of Karla, a stand-up comedian in Feiffer’s play “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” it’s perfect.

During a rehearsal for the play’s West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, Feiffer displays a potpourri of emotion: excitement, terror, joy, hope, pride and humility. This performance marks the first time she has starred in a play she has written, despite numerous stage and film credits, and it marks the beginning of a brave new world for her.

“It’s like I’ve never acted in a play before!” she exclaims with mock exasperation when director Trip Cullman coaches her to walk a bit more naturally to her mark. Cullman and co-star Jason Butler Harner, who is between seasons playing Agent Petty on the new Netflix crime drama “Ozark,” laugh. Their laughter is contagious, and soon everyone in the room, including the stage manager and assistant director, is laughing.

Seconds later Feiffer and Harner shout angry lines at each other as their respective fictional mothers sleep in a hospital room they’re sharing while battling cancer. The sickly, pastel-pink hues of the room serve as the setting for the play, which probes the pain of human frailty, sickness, love and loss with sharp dialogue that rockets from pathos to humor in seconds.

“I think that’s, for better or worse, how I experience life,” Feiffer, 32, says a few days later over coffee at Espresso Profeta in Westwood Village. “I don’t know any other way to cope with, or process anything, without leaning on humor.”

Feiffer is tall and lanky, with a barely perceptible slouch and eyebrows that seem permanently arched in an expression of slight anxiety, surprise and dry wit. She absentmindedly twirls the ends of her long blond hair into a loose twist with her left hand while she talks. She favors bright pink lipstick, which complements her pale skin.

The daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning satirist and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the comedian-writer Jenny Allen, Halley was raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a family that shares her hyper-articulate brand of gallows humor.

As a child she created a cast of imaginary characters in her head worthy of a Russian novel. Acting eclipsed her writing aspirations at age 9 when she attended Stagedoor Manor sleepaway camp in the Catskills, famous for churning out Hollywood stars like Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman.

There she was cast in a variety of bleak productions including “The Children’s Hour” and a play called “Sarcophagus,” about victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“I did a play where I was the mother of a teenager who commits suicide as the result of severe mental illness, and I was like, ‘This is the best summer of my life!’” Feiffer says.

She returned to writing in high school. She penned a 10-minute play called “Easter Candy” that was loosely based on an unhealthy codependent relationship she had recently ended with a female friend. That script finds two friends with Easter baskets in their laps. One friend surreptitiously slips extra candy into the basket of the other. When she is caught, she admits that she is trying to fatten up her friend in order to eat her because she loves her so much.

That play won a young playwrights competition, and at 17 Feiffer had her first play produced off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theatre. She attended college at Wesleyan University, where Feiffer once again found her writing aspirations waylaid.

“I chose to be a heavy drinker instead, and that didn’t work out for me,” Feiffer says, shrugging. She got sober more than eight years ago and has since learned to balance her dark past with what she calls “the lightness” of her present. Still, alcoholism is a tattoo she wears candidly, and until “A Funny Thing” it served as the subject of almost all of her work.

In order to act in her latest play, she says that she had to become her “most courageous self.”

“What’s so scary,” she says, “is that it’s already so vulnerable being a playwright and exposing your gaping wound of a soul and your bleeding heart to an audience, and then it’s just as scary being an actor and taking your clothes off literally and metaphorically for 500-plus people every night.”

Director Cullman, who has collaborated with Feiffer on multiple plays, says that Feiffer is “one of the most mentally healthy human beings” whom he has encountered in a long time.

“I share with her a love of humor that comes from pain and from what makes people uncomfortable,” he says.

He knew that they were destined to be “artistic soul mates” when they found themselves laughing hysterically through parts of the Broadway production of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring Jessica Lange.

“We were the only ones laughing and we didn’t understand why everyone wasn’t cracking up,” Feiffer says. “Alcoholism is LOL.”

Pain, she says, is the perfect crucible for truth and humor. This philosophy has a track record of success. Feiffer has had a play produced every season since “How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them” was produced in 2013. The play that followed, “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” about a toxic (and drunken) relationship between a young actress and her successful playwright father, earned her a nomination for an Outer Critics Circle Award.

She makes her daily living as a writer for TV, most recently for “Mozart in the Jungle,” because, “Newsflash, you can’t really make a stable living in theater,” she says.

That’s not the only reason, though. She loves the boundary-pushing, character-driven nature of the modern television renaissance, as well as its sense of structure. Her dream is to emulate women like Sarah Treem, the co-creator and showrunner of the Showtime drama “The Affair” and to nurture mutually harmonious careers in TV and theater.

She has two plays in development with Cullman (and plans to star in both), and she is writing a pilot for TNT and developing a show with Mark Duplass.

Her “A Funny Thing” co-star Harner says that he’s known Feiffer for more than a decade and that one of the thrills of knowing her has been watching the arc of her life and career.

“She is a connected writer, and she has tremendous gifts as an actress that makes her an even better writer,” he says. “I want the world to know that she is formidable.”

Harner occasionally has felt intimidated performing alongside Feiffer since she knows the material from the inside-out. If he messes up, he can see her face cloud over. When this fact is related to Feiffer, she screams with laughter.

“I don’t know how he still talks to me. If I were him I would never speak to me ever again,” she howls, screwing up her face and pretending to take a note on her phone. “Siri: Remind me to apologize to Jason later.”

Actors may not generally give notes to fellow actors in a play, but Feiffer can get away with it, Cullman says, because everyone involved respects her as the writer. She also switches hats without missing a beat.

Says Harner, “She knows how her play works, and at the same time she’s also incredibly open and generous and amenable to a comment. There’s no defense mechanism at all. She’s incredibly self-effacing, and her plays are evidence of that.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 8

Tickets: $25 and up

Info: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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