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You Will Get Sick

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 6, 2022

Linda Lavin, Daniel K. Isaac, and Marinda Anderson
Photo by Joan Marcus
Given the human suffering we are made to witness in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of You Will Get Sick–the main character's terrifying and mysterious physical deterioration, eventually accompanied by a loss of mental acuity, and the attendant helplessness and desperation that come with it–I almost feel guilty having enjoyed it as much as I did. But playwright Noah Diaz, making his New York debut, has so artfully stitched together the real world and some far-off galaxy of his imagination, and fused the funny with the sad, that You Will Get Sick emerges as a highly original pick-me-up. And then there's Linda Lavin.

Lavin plays Callan, or, as the character-by-numbers script would have it, #2. If you're a New Yorker, you've met this woman before: She's the lady of a certain age gabbing with her friend on the uptown M104, or insisting on the end piece at the deli counter at Zabar's. Callan fancies herself an actor, and is enrolled in a pretentious acting class while she prepares to audition, improbably, for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But the money's tight. So when she sees a green flyer (it's plastered all over the Roundabout lobby) offering $20 just to call a stranger and have a conversation with him, she phones its author, #1 (Daniel K. Isaac).

And thus begins a strange, mercenary, but fascinating friendship. Callan will never stop offering #1 comfort and support. Yet she'll never stop shaking him down for more money. And Lavin's timing, accent, physicality (watch her do an acting exercise, transitioning from "walk like a lion" to "walk like a tiger"), and off-key attempts at "Over the Rainbow" are all keepers. She's been away too long.

#1, young and seemingly vital, has been experiencing muscular difficulties and can't get anything more out of his doctor than, "It's bad." His late brother went through something similar, and #1 can't bear to tell his sister Polly, or #3 (a winning Marinda Anderson), about his rapidly worsening condition. He can't even say the word "sick," the thought of it is that debilitating. So he hires Callan to practice the difficult conversation and eventually to break the news to Polly and his friends.

It's all happening in a curious environment. Yes, it's New York, but what time are we in? The clothes and attitudes seem contemporary (Michael Krass and Alicia Austin did the costumes), but the phones are all landlines, and there's no mention of cell phones or the internet. Further, Diaz has stocked this New York with some wild metaphorical improbabilities. It seems giant birds have been menacing the populace, swooping down and carrying loved ones away in their beaks. This metaphor is easy enough: The birds are death. But what are we to make of the wild dogs racing through the park? Or the hay? #1 keeps coughing it up and also seems to be partially made of it. Diaz' script is rife with Wizard of Oz references, and maybe this has something to do with the Scarecrow, but it's a head-scratcher, among several.

Then there's the narration. An offstage voice keeps intoning it, revealing #1's thoughts, and most of it is redundant: Why do we need "You lie on the floor" when we can see #1 lying on the floor? We eventually meet this offstage narrator, #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez), and it turns out there's a reason for his presence, but you have to wait for almost the whole play to find out what that reason is.

I haven't mentioned #4, Nate Miller, sort of an all-purpose white guy in several roles, most hilariously Roscoe, a burger-joint waiter who can't stop crying. Or the odd set, by the design collective dots, an all-purpose tiled black room that can be a shower, an actor's studio, #1's apartment, anything it wants. Eventually it turns into something else altogether, quite spectacularly: #1 (here's another Oz parallel) has been saying "I want to go home," meaning his Midwest roots, and Diaz gets him there, for a bittersweet finale.

The dialogue is clipped, short, to-the-point sentences, and Diaz knows how to wring a laugh out of the most appalling circumstances. Also how to make us care: #1's gradually revealed character–he's gay, his boyfriend left, his family is loving but demanding–is persuasive and touching, and graced by Isaac's everyman appeal.

Sam Pinkleton directs, unobtrusively; mostly he stands back and lets Diaz and the gifted cast show us what they've got, which is plenty.

Diaz' main point seems to be that, well, you will get sick, and fate is random, and the body a precious resource that time sooner or later will ravage. And that when that happens, there are palliatives, but the most valuable may be human companionship; #1's insistence that "I can get through this" turns into a liability, and Callan's support becomes indispensable to him, even as she taps him for another twenty. This is one of the stranger relationships I've seen onstage in a while, and quirky doesn't begin to describe the amalgam of comedy, misery, discomfort, far-out fantasy, and sheer eccentricity in You Will Get Sick. Let's welcome a fresh new viewpoint to the theater. And let's rejoice that Linda Lavin is around to give it a voice.

You Will Get Sick
Through December 11, 2022
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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