Evan Handler, whose nascent Broadway acting career was nastily interrupted nine years ago by cancer, is lucky to be alive, although he never admits it.

Evan Handler, whose nascent Broadway acting career was nastily interrupted nine years ago by cancer, is lucky to be alive, although he never admits it.

In “Time on Fire: A Comedy of Terrors,” he details the grueling, years-long battle he had with a near-fatal form of leukemia. Listening to him describe the emotional and physical agony he endured with both the disease and the bureaucracy of the Sloan-Kettering hospital staff in New York, it’s hard not to feel something for the thesp.

But as a playwright and performer in this one-man show, Handler’s tone is so self-pitying and smug that it’s even more difficult to feel actual sympathy. If it were anyone but Handler himself on the stage, the piece would be tiresome. As is, it leaves viewers struggling to appreciate the torment of his having had a fatal disease.

With sardonic, caustic jibes, Handler lacerates the Sloan-Kettering staffers for their seeming indifference to his well-being. The doctors one and all are described as uncaring hacks with little time for the patients. One reminds him of Richard Nixon; another is furious over being phoned at home.

Handler says the sick and suffering — even in as upscale a place as this ritzy Upper East Side hospital — are treated like livestock, shuffled from room to room, haphazardly given drugs and ignored.

With several overstated references to the Holocaust, he graphically re-enacts the moans of patients lying in the cancer ward awaiting treatment. He dolefully laments of the unfeeling remarks that nurses made to him. “I didn’t see anyone fighting back,” Handler cries.

So the actor battles back in his own way — forging his name on hospital documents to save a few hours in waiting to have blood taken. Or screaming at his doctor. Or escaping to the Bahamas with his girlfriend.

While irate over being treated poorly, he’s equally irked by the stellar care he gets later at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Sloan-Kettering doctors never shared information about his disease with him. At Johns Hopkins, he whines, they share too much.

Perhaps that’s the point — that cancer’s grasp is so overwhelming that all else becomes second-hand irritation; that there is no pleasing someone on the verge of death. If that’s Handler’s goal, then his dramatic structure succeeds, but at a price — his leading character is so unpleasant that he’s ultimately not someone we care about.

More than in his New York performance of this piece, Handler has a tendency toward overkill by punctuating his “moments” with an unnecessary pause and a doe-eyed stare at the audience, as though they should understand.

The young actor’s only truly tender moment arrives, appropriately, at the end , when he cavalierly doffs his handmade toupee to reveal that the chemotherapy has left him hairless. The gesture indicates a heartfelt acceptance of what has happened, without histrionics.

“Time on Fire” tells a frightening and sometimes compelling story. But Handler would have been better served if he had stopped searching for sympathy in every crevice and just told the tale.

Time on Fire: A Comedy of Terrors

(Coast Playhouse, West Hollywood; 99 seats; $ 20 top)

Production

New York Stage & Film Co., Los Angeles Stage & Film Co., Don Fairbanks, Ron Kastner and David Binder present a monologue in two acts, written and performed by Evan Handler. Director, Marcia Jean Kurtz; producers, Sarah Grossman, Kim Adelman.

Creative

Lighting, Garrett Caine. Opened April 8, 1995; reviewed April 16; runs through May 21. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min.

Cast

Cast: Evan Handler.
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