Over an interminable eighty-five minutes, playwright Noah Diaz’s You Will Get Sick meanders between absurdity and inanity, continually challenging the audience to distinguish one from the other. I gave up. That’s fine, because director Sam Pinkleton does, too, resigned to let a likable cast and inventive design team spin their wheels until the blessed ending.
Ostensibly a comedy, or a tragi-comedy, or a dystopic mashup of The Wizard of Oz and Field of Dreams, Diaz’s play could possibly be enjoyed as a befuddling trifle if not for its serious pretensions about morbidity and mortality. Both aspects of this double downer involve a young man (the hopelessly adrift Daniel K. Isaac) recently diagnosed with a terminal disease that Diaz, desperately straining for universality, never identifies. He also doesn’t note any character names in the program’s cast list, referring to each of the actors only by the numbers 1 through 5, even though character names are used in the script. This concealment likely is a way of protecting the play’s huge final reveal, or it could have another point that exists in Diaz’s noggin but not in mine.
Punching in at number 2 is Linda Lavin (Alice, Other Desert Cities) who might as well be known by her own illustrious name throughout the play, because that’s the major claim the production has on our attention. Channeling Ruth-Gordon-style quirkiness, Lavin portrays an elderly acting student whose dream is to star as the adolescent Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz, despite the ridiculous age discrepancy and an inability to effectively sing “Over the Rainbow.” If there’s humor in this cringey contrivance, Lavin can’t find it, which, given her considerable comic talents, just proves it’s not there.
Apparently, though, there is also some sort of symbolism in the character’s geriatric desire to humiliate herself, as evidenced by the fact that Isaac is transmogrifying into the Scarecrow, another Ozian favorite, right in front of our eyes, thus becoming tempting fodder for the unseen, menacing birds an omniscient, if not quite omnipresent, monotonal voice-over (Dario Landani Sanchez) says are infesting the skies. It’s a spectacular bit of stage legerdemain from the play’s credited illusionist Skylar Fox, but the real trick would have been to give it a meaning more profound than the obvious one about human frailty. An unintended take is that, like Dorothy, the audience is trapped in a strange new world, expecting someone to eventually get a brain. But, alas, that never happens.
The beginning of the play’s turgid quest to nowhere is actually a pre-beginning, with a legion of tear-off flyers papering the lobby of the Laura Pels Theatre. They contain a plea for someone to break the young man’s dire health news to his sister (Marinda Anderson) in exchange for compensation. As the lights go up, Lavin’s character is on the verge of accepting the job, which eventually metastasizes into other forms of mercenary caregiving that she uses to fund her acting classes and other big-city expenses. It’s anyone’s guess if Diaz is satirizing the predatory nature of the American healthcare system, or the hypocrisies of urban liberalism, or just has a personal animus against the drama school he attended. The only certainty is that the theatrical run of You Will Get Sick could not have been more poorly timed, arriving as it does on the deservedly esteemed heels of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Cost of Living, which tackled the subject of caregiving with genuine compassion, smart humor, and writing meant to be understood.
Meanwhile, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s loyal subscribers are treated to philosophical dialogue between Isaac and Lavin about whether it’s better to be a dog in a park or a cat in a bodega, a mostly mugging assortment of one-dimensional background characters (Anderson and Nate Miller), and a nonsensical, though admittedly impressive, set change near the end of You Will Get Sick–executed by dots, a design collective–that signals to the stupefied audience the play is mercifully nearing a conclusion. Fancifully hokey to the extreme, Diaz’s denouement could even make Kevin Costner wince, as the voice-over becomes more than a simple way of padding the play to barely full-length. I won’t ruin the surprise, but, if that’s the only thing keeping you from seeing the play, here’s hoping somebody does.
You Will Get Sick (through December 11, 2022)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 25 minutes with no intermission