‘You Will Get Sick’ Linda Lavin is a Breath of Fresh Air
Sometimes the best way to accept the inevitable is to step into the realm of the fantastic and approach the unapproachable through magical thinking and an encouragement toward vacating reality. In You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz, directed by Sam Pinkleton presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the unnamed characters traverse through unspecified settings and manage their lives of quiet desperation with humor and a sense of camaraderie that comes with a price. The price is avoiding the blinding truth until they are ready to receive it.
Daniel K. Isaac’s character is the emotionally distant, sweet #1, who has a phone conversation with Linda Lavin’s #2 at the top of the play. Initially, I questioned why they speak to each other since money is discussed upfront and it wasn’t clear what the exchange services were. However, when character #2 straightens out how she wants the money delivered, we discover she is an actor, is on a project and above all needs to supplement her finances. Character #1 eventually clarifies the services he pays her for in this absurdist, quirky play whose surreal elements are funny, surprising and metaphoric.
Interestingly, there is an internal war in character #1, which we may identify with at one level or another. He has been in denial about the severity of his illness. The initial service he requires of #2 is to listen to him as he tells her about his condition, so in the telling he can acknowledge what he is going through, confront it and then position himself to tell his sister. At least he knows he is in denial. Blindness related to not admitting the signs of disease when they first appear is a typical reaction, unless one is a hypochondriac, which #1 clearly is not. When we understand what #1 is going through, we consider COVID-19 deniers.The most extreme were on their death beds scorning their nurses and doctors’ COVID diagnosis. These went to their deaths with the peaceful conviction that anything other than COVID was killing them.
Though #1 isn’t as blind as those individuals, he can’t reconcile his illness. He can’t even admit to himself that his body is falling apart, that his hands are growing numb, that it is becoming harder to walk and impossible not to fall in the shower. His condition is incurable and there has been a diagnosis which we never learn. Yet, as the play progresses, #1 struggles with himself emotionally and must be as detached as possible to begin to comprehend that the plans for his life, his hopes and dreams have been shuttered by the drama that is overtaking his body’s ability to function.
Many youth who are immortal until they aren’t, think that illness is what happens to the old and feeble. However, this doesn’t appear to be Character #1’s thinking…that sickness is for the old. We discover later in the play in a discussion he has with his sister that he is aware that sickness can impact the young and kill them. In fact he took care of his sibling Patrick who was ill, maybe of the same disease, and nursed him until he died. So he is not a callow thirty-something. Clearly, taking care of his brother was a sacrifice of love, but it took its toll on him. In his discussion with his sister, #1 states he doesn’t want her to take care of him, nor does he want aides to help out. Somehow, he will deal with this on his own and allow the illness to take its course. The recognition of the impact of illness on family, since he has had that experience, most probably has overwhelmed him. Denialism and blindness allow one to transition to the truth gradually.
The first step in #1’s plan is to come back from denialism and face reality with someone who is not a relative. To do this and remain less emotionally overwhelmed, he decides to pay someone to listen to him reconcile the fact that he is “sick,” though he never frames it as an illness that is cutting short his life. That is a bridge too far, and one he is not ready to cross. Thus, Lavin’s humorous character #2 becomes the one to take on the impossible burden of listening to him as he describes factually what his body is doing. Character #1’s mind and emotions are so shut down, he can’t discuss this with his co-workers or his sister, just yet. Character #2 will help prepare him for those discussions.
Character #2 is desperate for the money and does odd jobs and takes acting classes so she can become good enough to audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Character #2 and #1 are idiosyncratic and pursue their own realities and somehow manage to accept one another’s weirdness with generosity so that what they both wish, they help each other achieve. The actors are superb in making the unusual seem regular with their direct, in the moment authenticity. Importantly, though they are not friends, #1 and #2 help each other feel less alone against the personal trials they face.
Character #1’s connection with character #2 strengthens after he sends her a check which he didn’t sign. That forces a face-to-face meeting which leads to other meetings, the next when he hires character #2 to tell his sister (Character #3 is Marinda Anderson) about his condition. When the three of them meet, Diaz constructs a humorous scene in a restaurant with a crying waiter (Nate Miller) that Pinkleton directs with excellent pacing for humor. After this meeting with his sister we understand the limitations of family and why #1 doesn’t want to bother her about what he is going through.
In addition to his illness, #1 faces another problem. He must escape the monstrous birds that sound like crows, who prey upon and kill the sick. Nate Miller’s character #4 plays a number of parts relating to the bird menace. One is a salesman who sells insurance to protect against the humongous birds. Another is a despondent waiter (he appears in #1’s meeting with his sister) whose mother was taken by a monstrous bird. Thus, on top of having to confront the deterioration of his body, #1 has to beware of these other worldly birds. Interestingly, #2’s attitude toward the bird attacks is sanguine, almost uninterested. She will stay well as an older person and help this thirty-something in his illness. Theirs is an ironic reversal of the natural order of things.
Character #2’s response to Miller’s bird insurance salesman sums up her reaction to most things at this point in her life’s experience. She tells him a choice epithet about where to go. Linda Lavin’s #2 uses epithets as seasonings to make her delectable, unstoppable character more immediate and no nonsense. Lavin, with decades of know-how has fine tuned her rhythm and timing for humor, cleverly waiting for the chortling laughter that always follows her character’s well-placed retorts.
Diaz messages a number of themes with these unusual characters who are fanciful but manage to be endearing because they are so vulnerable. Caregiving, Diaz suggests, sometimes requires allurements like money because family can’t always be counted on to help. Sometimes strangers are better attuned because they are not emotional and there are no problematic bonds. Characters #2 and #1 arrive at a congeniality of quid pro quos. #1 even goes to one of #2’s acting classes where they act out “lion” and “tiger” in a humorous segment which actually takes #1’s mind off his condition and physically helps him. Lavin is not only spry at 85-years old, her “lion” and “tiger” steal the show. Her spot-on performance has her addressing the audience and singing an audition song (for the part of Dorothy) in which she ends up in the wrong register. And after trying it a few times, #2 never gets it right.
For his part Isaac’s #1 handles the absurdist elements with authenticity. When he spits up the hay, symbolic of where he originated from, and representative of his illness, the action is weird and frightening, but believable. He negotiates the straw-man, scarecrow imagery in the later scenes with matter-of-fact acceptance. These segments and his apparent suspension (with special effects) suggesting tropes from The Wizard of Oz, an iconic story whose verities relate to the characterizations in You Will Get Sick, are fascinating to ponder. However, the playwright is a master of the opaque and uncertain, never really pinning down any particular truths apart from the fact expressed in the title and our susceptibility to our mortal state. That he delivers these themes gently with fantastic elements is enough.
Isaac’s character #1 echoes Dorothy’s wish to return home as related to The Wizard of Oz. Lavin’s #2 helps him achieve that wish as #1 helps #2 achieve her goal. At the play’s conclusion we note that the money #2 has received from #1 has allowed her to purchase a gingham dress and red shiny slippers so she can properly audition for the part of Dorothy, a dream she’s had her entire life.
#1 makes it home. For him home is in a field of hay (though wheat might be more metaphorical). There he meets up with his brother Patrick, Character #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez) who joins him holding a microphone. It is Patrick’s voice we have heard (in voice over) expressing #1’s interior thoughts throughout the play.
At the conclusion we understand the importance of #5 in helping give #1 solace and comfort to keep his emotional turmoil at bay so he can function and find his way to “get back to where he once belonged.” At home in the field with Patrick, #1 is able to breathe freely, away from the noise and the hectic gyrations of city life. There, he seems well and is in his right place. The metaphors settle into a finality at the conclusion. Indeed, the human condition vies between sickness and wellness. As Diaz’s title suggests, humans are mere mortals. There is an immutable inevitably of sickness. During it, if we are fortunate, we will “get back to where we once belonged” (our home and what that means to us).
Kudos to dots (set design) Michael Kross and Alicia Austin (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Lee Kinney (original music and sound design) Daniel Kluger (original music and sound effects) Skylar Fox (magic and illusions) Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design) who bring Diaz’s play and Pinkleton’s vision of it to fruition.
Diaz’s daring, imagistic play is in its World Premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until 11 December. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/you-will-get-sick/performances