“When you hear hoofbeats, you don’t look for zebras” is the standard medical excuse for not predicting a rare disease when a less-rare one presents similar symptoms. But woe to people like Jenny Allen, who get trampled by zebras. Allen’s one-woman show about simultaneously coming down with two different kinds of cancer is a lot funnier than one would expect, given its dire subject matter, and co-helmers James Lapine and Darren Katz have given it enough pizzazz to forestall the inevitable question, which is: haven’t we seen most of this before?
A stand-up comedian and wife of cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, Allen enters through the lobby of the theater, greeting everyone as if seeing long-lost friends and relatives. By the time she wanders onto the stage, she’s got our attention, and keeps it, ingratiatingly asking if everyone’s OK with the A/C and telling us to turn off our phones so that “I’m the only one here tonight who’s embarrassing herself.” Said embarrassment is that Allen was diagnosed with endometrial cancer — but “if you have to get cancer, this is the kind to get,” her doctor tells her.
Allen gets a long way by being cute, and when she can’t quite sustain the narrative with sheer charm, Lapine, Katz and lighting designer David Lander have a couple of very cool tricks up their sleeves. For example, the house lights stay partway up through the first several minutes, but when Allen gets into the messy business of maybe being about to die, everything quietly gets much, much darker, leaving the writer-performer in a tight pool of light onstage. During surgery, it turns out she has both endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer at once — a scary scenario.
Lapine and Katz keep Allen’s delivery sunny throughout the entire piece (“I did get to have my very first colonoscopy, so that was a treat!”), allowing her apparent good cheer to serve as a disturbing counterpoint to the moods she’s describing and the poor treatment she’s receiving. A section about a doctor who baldly lies about having her test results is particularly effective and infuriating.
Ultimately, though, Allen’s travails don’t really add much to the crowded illness-related solo-show genre — it’s a narrative about cancer, just as declarative as its title. There’s an uncomfortable level of self-regard that keeps slipping into Allen’s delivery, too, a kind of implied how-dare-you that pops up whenever she’s talking about her treatment. She did get better, as the title indicates, and there’s a sense that Allen is more angry about being treated badly at first than she is happy about finding good treatment and surviving, which seems weird.
Directorial panache aside, the whole piece feels like the kind of thing to which Anna Deavere Smith might devote five minutes in her current solo show about illness “Let Me Down Easy.”