Two-mur Humor: He's Malignant, She's Benign
nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
August 17, 2007
Did you hear the one about the needle biopsy testing positive for "atypical cells"? No? Oh, that's right, it's not actually a joke—just a scene from life (mine, circa 1997). But the stark "realness" of the situation certainly didn't prevent me from darkly (some might say inappropriately) cracking wise at every opportunity. And while I don't presume to understand fully where comic writers Jim Tooey and Valerie David are coming from (my excised mass deemed reassuringly "pre-cancerous"), I totally "get" the need to take charge of your own life story when life itself is spiraling into physical and emotional havoc. The only problem with this approach, however, is that sometimes very dramatic life situations don't always translate very well into jokes—or even drama, for that matter. If they're not carefully structured in the retelling, they often turn out to be just plain old scenes from life.
Two-mur Humor: He's Malignant, She's Benign gives us Paul and Lisa, (based on the real-life Tooey and David), from their early symptoms, through diagnosis and treatment, to subsequent life as survivors of life-threatening illness. With projected back-titles and lively interstitial music, their parallel journeys are chronicled in brief vignettes, with each actor (Tooey as Paul, and Kelly Chippendale as Lisa) playing multiple supporting roles that populate the "HELL-th Care System" and beyond. And therein lies this show's first pathology. To illustrate just how harrowing the world can be for cancer victims (and there's no denying that it's ghastly) our plucky heroes face the most callously grating, personally dysfunctional, medically incompetent, and appallingly mercenary roster of personalities imaginable.
Some of these dolts are successfully satirized to full comic effect, proving that the pen is mightier than the scalpel. Many, however, are mercilessly reduced to the basest of caricatures. An Asian physician in googly-eyed fake eyeglasses is mired in repeated confusion of R/L-sounds; a rabbi in full Hasidic regalia discounts "Hebrew for Dummies" by $2.50 as a one-time-only cancer bonus; and a mincing drag queen, complete with feather boa, blithely prattles on in self-absorbed reverie. Such cheap shots disappoint not only because they're so blatantly offensive (hello? I thought suffering engendered compassion?), but because they're easy and obvious in a manner that precludes a more layered exploration of these characters' emotional arc.
Yes, it's enlightening—and horrifying—to accompany Paul and Lisa down through the various circles of health-care Hades, but since we already know (via program notes) their eventual fate, their descent lacks any genuine suspense. Unfortunately, Charles Messina's perfunctory direction doesn't structure this raw material towards any significant dramatic build. We get a dutifully linear, if a touch spasmodic, account of MRIs, chemotherapy, complications both medical and personal, insurance travesties, etc.—all the things that "happen to" these characters. What we want more of is what these characters make happen: what they do, and how they change in response to their fates.
Believe me, anyone who's ever suffered—or witnessed a loved one suffer—a major health crisis will "get" it. The jokes, the ironic distance, and the very human dread driving it all. Tooey and David clearly recognize that laughter really is the best medicine—and, yes, comedy usually entails collateral damage of some sort. But another prescription might call for some personal revelation, ultimate transformation, and a deeper glimpse into the sheer moxie that transported these characters from victims to survivors.
And if in the process, we can have a laugh at ourselves and all the other poor hapless bozos out there in Cancer Land? Well, then, ladies and germs, you had me at the word "tumor."
(Thank you very much, I'll be here all week.)