The playwright and actress Halley Feiffer doesn’t know how she got chronic Lyme disease, but she thinks it was from a tick on Martha’s Vineyard. Two years ago, she was acting in an Off Broadway play and could barely get through the second act. “Profound fatigue, profound brain fog. I couldn’t remember the word for, like, spoon. I couldn’t write,” Feiffer said recently. She was leaving a clinic on Park Avenue South, where, as part of her treatment, she’d just been injected with an antioxidant that makes her feel “like a superhero.”
Illness is the subject of her new play, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” which MCC Theatre is producing at the Lucille Lortel. Feiffer has a knack for titles. One of her first plays, produced in 2013, was “How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them.” It was followed by “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” a black comedy about the dysfunctional, booze-soaked relationship between an aspiring stage actress and her father, a renowned Upper West Side playwright. This got some attention, since Feiffer is the daughter of the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer. But Halley, who is thirty-one, is less interested in autobiography than in subverting her audience’s assumptions. “With almost everything I write, I’m inspired by an event or some part of myself that disgusts me, and I try to take that kernel and blow it up times ten billion,” she said.
Growing up, she revered her father, who would work all day in his studio, listening to jazz. “My most blissful childhood memories are playing a game I invented called Imagination, where I would lie on the floor and throw a ball at a wall for five hours and create an entire fictional life,” she recalled over an almond-milk latte. “I had an entire family I created called the Moonstones, and I wrote basically a Russian novel about this family in my head. Before alcohol, that was, like, my drug.” By fifteen, she continued, “I was drinking myself to death without knowing that’s what I was doing. I sort of pretended I was Simone de Beauvoir with my friends in the kitchen.” (She got sober at twenty-four.)
During high school, she auditioned for Noah Baumbach’s film “The Squid and the Whale” and was cast as Jesse Eisenberg’s neglected girlfriend: her first major role, shot after her freshman year at Wesleyan. Fame—proximity to it, self-abasement in pursuit of it—became an enduring theme. In the 2013 film “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she co-wrote with Ryan Spahn, she played a narcissistic actress who desperately tries to land an A-list co-star for her comeback project. Her new play, about two strangers who meet in the cancer hospital where their mothers share a room, is another darkly comic distortion of real life. While Feiffer was in college, her mother, the writer Jenny Allen, was treated for ovarian cancer, an experience that Allen recounted in a one-woman play, “I Got Sick Then I Got Better.”
“She had a roommate on the other side of the curtain, and I had a quick thought, like, Wow, it would be so cool if there was some cute boy, maybe her son, who I could flirt with,” Feiffer recalled. “And, as soon as I thought that, I thought, That is such a selfish thing to think, Halley.”
Feiffer’s parents divorced a few years ago; her mother lives on Martha’s Vineyard with Feiffer’s younger sister, and her father lives in East Hampton—“so now they both live in summer resorts full time,” Feiffer said. At a building in the theatre district, she took an elevator to a rehearsal room, where two actors were running a scene in which they compare their mothers’ parenting choices:
Don: My mom used to put me to sleep by telling me stories about all the men she’d pursued romantically before my dad.
Karla: My mom used to put us to sleep by turning on “Law & Order.”
Truish? “We loved watching ‘Law & Order’ in my family,” Feiffer admitted. “Especially ‘SVU’; it was the only thing that all four of us agreed on.”