Review

Comedy, and sex, in the cancer ward? 'A Funny Thing Happened' goes there with glee

Karla, a struggling stand-up comic, is furiously jotting in her notebook while trying out different versions of a new routine. “I’ve been single for so long, I’ve started having sex dreams about my vibrator.”

Would wet dreams, she wonders, be funnier? Wait, women don’t even have wet dreams. If Karla had a typewriter, there’d be a basket overflowing with balled-up paper.

The unlikely setting for this comedy writing workshop is a hospital room at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Karla’s mother, Marcie, is sleeping soundly. Another patient, Geena, slumbers on the other side of the curtain as though she might never open her eyes again.

A safer audience for a comedian would be hard to find, except that Karla hasn’t a clue that Geena’s son, Don, a shabily dressed millionaire still reeling from the breakup of his marriage, has come into the room and can’t believe what he’s hearing.

This is the setup of Halley Feiffer’s daring romantic comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecological Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the sparkling direction of Trip Cullman.

The play is as defiantly unconventional as its title, but it is also satisfying in traditional ways. Imagine Neil Simon’s situational craftsmanship crossed with an indie sensibility that’s not so much feminist as female-centered. Feiffer’s humor, heavy with outlandish oversharing, is as spiky as it is generous. Death overhangs the zaniness but somehow doesn’t kill the laughing mood.

Karla was played off-Broadway by Beth Behrs, the Paris-Hiltonish waitress on the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls.” Feiffer, an actor with a quirky resume (HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” the recent Broadway revival of “The Front Page,” films such as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding”) and a playwright many have been closely tracking since her 2015 breakout “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” takes on the role herself at the Geffen, expertly navigating her way around Karla’s sharp edges.

Betraying an obnoxious streak that is really defensiveness taken to ludicrous extremes, Karla has trouble with close relationships. Intimacy has eluded her, and the way she tears into Don (Jason Butler Harner), who very legitimately complains after overhearing one too many rape jokes, suggests that the source of her outrageous wit is backlog rage.

Wisecracks, her Xanax and Prozac, soothe her. Normally, her humor keeps other people at bay, but after she wounds Don with a salvo of crippling put-downs, she uses her funny side to make amends. Cleary, the guy is suffering. He may have made a fortune selling a start-up tech company, but with his mother dying, his wife now living with a woman and his son having problems with drugs, he’s in no condition to battle a snarky comic. Animosity turns into giggling sympathy, and it’s not long before the daily hospital visiting routine sparks affection between these two adult children with seriously ill mothers.

Harner’s Don, less a middle-aged schlub than a good-looking neurotic, tilts the play in the direction of rom-com fantasy. Don confesses before having sex with Karla — hilariously choreographed by Cullman in the hospital room’s handicap-accessible bathroom — that he hasn’t gone to the gym in six years, but you’d never know it. His worn corduroy jacket may not have elbows and his sweatpants may constitute a hate crime, as Karla mercilessly put it, but his lush mane of hair and better-than-average physique suggest nothing worse than an aftershave model gone to seed.

What was once an odd couple pairing now seems a likely Tinder match. Harner, a serious dramatic actor who appeared in Ivo van Hove’s productions of “The Crucible” and “Hedda Gabler,” isn’t the most natural comic performer, but he grows more effective — and affecting — as his character reveals his bruises and scars. The play’s accommodating flexibility is a testament to its richness.

Occasionally, the comic exaggeration is overdone. Feiffer works the clashing characterizations too strenuously at points. Personalities become brittle, and the laughter can momentarily ring hollow.

When Marcie (played with New York pungency by JoBeth Williams) finally wakes up, we learn where Karla gets her gift for cutting remarks. A social worker who could use a good therapist, Marcie is so nasty to her daughter that it’s a bit confounding how Karla manages to bite her sharp tongue.

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The backstory of Karla’s sister, who died of a drug overdose, is used to explain some of the enmity. But it’s the recognition that everyone is a crisis away from a nervous breakdown that humanizes the play.

The wisecracks continue, but the sorrow, anger and regret fueling them rise to the surface. Genuine emotion sneaks into the antiseptically cheery pink hospital room smartly designed by Lauren Helpern.

The play’s more farfetched rom-com elements are ultimately redeemed by the revelation of feelings too messy even for fairy tales. The comedy — and Feiffer is one funny playwright — provides a bulwark against inevitable despair.

As Geena, Eileen T’Kaye doesn’t have many lines in “A Funny Thing Happened,” but her first remark is a killer. Lying practically comatose in her hospital bed, she is awakened by the moans and gasps of sexual relations in the nearby bathroom. “This is weird,” she says in a loud deadpan. “Totally,” replies Marcie. “They’re very selfish.”

Selfish? Maybe. Laughably human? Definitely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. , L.A.

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

Tickets: $25-$90 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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