The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Roundabout’s You Will Get Sick
The screeching of a harsh-sounding bird echoes loudly through the Laura Pels Theatre, Roundabout‘s off-Broadway house, flapping ferociously, and bringing the wildly fascinating absurdist play, You Will Get Sick, forward into our collective consciousness. The title doesn’t entirely and obviously connect to the journey down this demented brick road that was written with a deafening twisted brilliance that registers by Noah Diaz (Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers“), but the play does make us wonder about our future and the great extraordinary challenges and joys that come from living inside these delicate things we call our bodies. We all will eventually get sick, he tells us in this new and fresh young play, one way or another, I’m guessing. Maybe we will even have to contemplate our demise because of that sickness. It’s hard to foresee. Many of us did just that over these last few years when COVID was on everyone’s mind and at the top of every news cycle almost every day. But I’m doubting it will come in the form of a big black bird swooping down from the heavens, as they seem to do in Diaz’s wonderful wild wacky world, grabbing hold of our bodies and taking us off to wherever. Hopefully to some good place. Or better place. Free of pain and disconnection.
The play really starts to take flight when a woman by the name of Callan, referred to as #2 in the Playbill and script, and played to the heavens by the wonderfully funny Linda Lavin (MTC’s Our Mother’s Brief Affair), calls a number she discovers on a flyer. She needs the cash, for reasons made clear later on, and lucky for her, and us, she is promptly hired by the young man, #1, played by Daniel K. Isaac (Public/Ma-Yi’s The Chinese Lady) who is on the other end of the line in need of someone with her spirit. He needs her, you see, most decisively, to be their with him and to be the first to hear his bad news. But the telling doesn’t come easy. You see his body is beginning to fail him, little by little, and he is having a hard time saying that debilitating fact out loud. So he hires Callan for $20, even though the flyer initially states $40, an amount that has been crossed out but sticks solidly in Callan’s head, to be the person he tells first. But it doesn’t end there, as he continues to struggle with the processing and verbalization of his sickness. The needs keep rolling in, like telling his sister, #3, played by Marinda Anderson (MTC’s The Cake) about his disease (which is never actually named), or being helped off the floor of his shower after his leg give out suddenly.
Yes, this is a comedy, albeit a dark, sarcastic, and absurd one, and probably because of that wild wanton mixture, You Will Get Sick works, selling its nonsensical formula like a traveling insurance salesman, or like that guy from “The Wizard of Oz”, Professor Marvel, a charlatan fortune teller who tells an upset Dorothy that she should probably go home to her Kansas Aunt. The price for the actions and assistance needed from Callan, the wannabe actress, by the sick man, are unending and continually negotiated comically and wisely by this oddly connecting pair of misfits in NYC. But it is here, in their financial interactions where the emotional attachment grows as pure as sarcastic gold, and one we are very happy to join and be enthusiastic voyeurs to.
The monologue that is taken and performed explains his disease, and is the weighted wand that elevates and drives this piece forward. It is a beautiful piece of writing, a spoken word story that is once removed but will live on in the air we breathe. As directed with a clever slant by Sam Pinkleton (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…), the relationship that is negotiated adeptly digs itself in much deeper and into something impossibly endearing. This is mainly because of Lavin and her ability to find a heartstring tug living inside almost every line, funny or not. Her energy and angle wildly transports her part into something spectacular. She really is the #2 role here to Isaac’s #1 character, but as performed by Lavin and her no-nonsense ability to always ask for a little bit more from herself as she tries for a little bit more money or a favor in exchange for her services, the outcome shifts the delicate balance. There is an exacting purpose to her proposals, and because of those favors, like pressuring him to come with her to her acting class, we can’t get enough of this wonderfully weird lady. Without Lavin’s ability to take something and run circles around everyone else while staying pretty centered and still on that stage, You Will Get Sick rises itself up into the air and becomes something quite opposite of the mediocre affair that it might have been without the director’s and Lavin’s sharp eye for edge. But with her in this spirited role, we just can’t get enough.
That energy that exists within lifts this piece up, although I must admit I’m not entirely sure of all the abstract references. What about those birds we hear about? Are they the same “ Wizard of Oz” crows that are seen pulling the hay out from the scarecrow’s body when Dorothy finds him in the cornfields? Or are those big black creatures described in You Will Get Sick by pushy insurance brokers and scared widows a merging of those same crows and possibly the wicked witch’s flying monkeys? No idea. Lavin’s Callan is forever practicing her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in hopes that she will be cast as Dorothy in a community-theater production of “The Wizard of Oz,” and the references to that epic film don’t stop there. Everyone seems to be wishing their way home, to the hay fields of their youth somewhere in the middle of this vast complicated country, or maybe it’s about someplace quieter and without any pain. Does that place even exist? Or do we have to be taken there by big black birds? The parallels are all there, or so it seems, and Callan does make the perfect Dorothy leading the others forward towards some kind of home, even if her voice continues to go too low.
These ideas linger and fly out, filling in the empty spaces on that modern-esque block set designed by DOTS, that mostly works even when it’s turns too literal, with delicious costuming by Michael Krass (Roundabout’s Noises Off) and Alicia Austin adding to the flavor. The abstractions lift off and rise almost metaphorically, like scarecrows and hay in a tornado, enhanced by the lighting design of Cha See (TNG’s One in Two), and sound design by Lee Kinney (Broadway’s Is This A Room), with some wildly wonderful original music by Daniel Kluger (Broadway’s The Sound Inside) and a few well-formulated magical illusions by Skylar Fox (Broadway’s Harry Potter…) that lead us all down the golden path to ponder the strangeness and sharpness of sickness and possibly death.
A voice from the outer other world keeps chiming in, by #5 delivered beautifully by Cario Ladani Sanchez (PH’s Selling Kabul). The voice provides insight and observations, that in many ways feel obvious and unnecessary. It does add a certain kind of cosmic flair initially, but it slowly starts to feel intrusive, annoying, and somewhat disconnected from the abstract reality that we are witnessing. It adds few bits of insight and little value to the journey, but I should have believed in Diaz a bit more, and so should you. Only later are we given the missing piece to understand the construct’s revelatory meaning deep in the connection to the main character’s decline. The payoff works, as we begin to see and comprehend the wider worldview that Diaz is trying hard to reveal.
“That’s weird, right?” Totally, even as the production of You Will Get Sick doesn’t end up being the most fulfilling theatrical adventure. It’s entertaining and darkly funny, but doesn’t fully takes us down that yellow brick road to a deeper completion. The play is Diaz’s New York debut, and in that, there is something wonderful, mainly because the structure is so darn fresh. It was written in 2018, and originally planned to be his performed thesis at Yale Drama School in the spring of 2020, but COVID-19 got in its way. It’s a fitting back story, unpacking a play about death and losing control of one’s own body to an unnamed disease, and although he wisely didn’t rewrite scenes to incorporate the pandemic’s history on us all as it sat waiting to be produced, the anxieties of our world seem to cleverly sneak in, adding to the absurdity and sum of that wonderful world that has been created by Diaz for these captivating characters to live or die in.
The way the cast, which includes a silly scene-stealing #4, played to the max by Nate Miller (LCT’s JUNK), does their best to find emotional currency in the layers of surrealism thrown at them by Diaz. The majority of the players are taxed with playing multiple roles, that seem to register as fractions of the whole. Much like the cowardly lion or the Tinman who is searching for his heart occupy aspects of self that need addressing head-on. Yet Lavin is by far the best at running with the material at hand, creating nuance in the bizarre, and embracing the whole tornado fully. The others do their due diligence, finding the laughs, but sometimes forgetting the heart and the emotional core. She’s worth the extra twenty bucks or so for creating such a charming oddity, and well worth the ninety-minute running time investment that Diaz is asking of us. Just be glad she, and you, answered that call, and made your way to the end of that road. This play might not work exceptionally well in all ways, but with #2 on the other end of that line, we know we have followed the right path.