Actor Evan Handler was spared a role in the ill-fated “Ishtar,” a film that would become a legendary bomb, when diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 24. Eight years later, after much chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Handler employs this and scores of other small ironies to construct a harrowing recounting of that life-threatening battle. With all the skills of a playwright considerably more experienced, Handler, a freshman scribe at 32, unleashes “Time on Fire,” a powerful punch not only at the fates but, more pointedly, at a health-care system that at times seems to rival the disease in destructiveness.
“Time on Fire” is both spare and unsparing, a monologue played out on a nearly bare stage in a direct, unsentimental and thoroughly engaging manner by the intelligent and uncompromising Handler. He names names and places, from doctors astonishingly callous to the hospital, New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering, that the ex-patient places somewhere between a snakepit and St. Elsewhere. “I’ve come to die in a madhouse,” is his first thought.
Handler, who has appeared on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation,””I Hate Hamlet” and Neil Simon’s Brooklyn trilogy, sets the tone for his solo performance with the early assertion that the “truly horrible and the hysterically funny” often reside side by side. His writing reflects just that as he layers detail upon detail to reconstruct his nearly unimaginable descent into illness and the cruelties of its treatment.
It’s the treatment that receives the brunt of Handler’s ire. His doctor, he says, “seems uncomfortable around someone he has been told is ill.” That same doctor throws a fit when Handler’s scared father commits the ultimate faux pas of phoning the physician at home.
Portable I.V. units don’t work, bureaucratic red tape is endless and, perhaps worst of all, when the young Handler musters the courage to fight back and express his anger, all he gets in return is a nurse’s condescending expression that seems to say, “Oh, how cute.”
Eventually, Handler transfers to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, presented here as the antithesis of the uncaring Sloan-Kettering. When a doctor there encourages Handler to peer into a microscope to view his own recovering cells, Handler weeps “tears of joy over a doctor who finally let me be one of them.”
It is at Johns Hopkins that Handler receives the bone marrow transplant that cures him of his illness.
Handler also charts the effect of his medical nightmare on his relationship with the girlfriend who sees him through the illness only to become burned out once a cure is achieved. His parents, old friends, acquaintances and theatrical cohorts respond in various ways to the prospect of probable death, and Handler’s unswerving recounting of those reactions always rings true.
While some in the audience might be put off by the bare-bones presentation — Handler delivers much of “Time” seated — most should find that the combination of his incisive writing and charming personality more than compensates for any lack of theatricality.
And Handler, or perhaps director Marcia Jean Kurtz, does toss in the occasional flourish, such as the unraveling of the massive computer print-out that is Handler’s hospital bill. Near play’s end, a simple yet potent act of unmasking strikes a powerful note.
Handler blessedly does not engage in the type of philosophizing and lesson-drawing that could have turned “Time on Fire” into a disease-of-the-week drama. His conclusion is as rich and contradictory as all that’s come before, and one is left hoping that this actor-turned-playwright continues with both endeavors.