'I'm Revolting' review — dark comedy about cancer crackles with a superb cast
There are certain places that, at first glance, don't exactly scream "comedy." The gallows. The White House. A Neo-Nazi meeting. The end of the world. And yet, playwrights have not only set shows at each of these places, but received acclaim and awards for doing so. Gracie Gardner, in her Off-Broadway-debut play I'm Revolting, adds "skin cancer clinic" to that list. Whether she wins any awards for it has yet to be seen (she already has a Relentless Award, among others, for her show PussySludge), but masterful acting and direction make I'm Revolting well worth a trip to the Linda Gross Theater.
The show's 90 minutes (which fly, thanks to Knud Adams's lively direction) are set entirely in the waiting room of the clinic. It's "not the famous one" — that would be Memorial Sloan-Kettering — not that it matters much, as both have three stars on Yelp. What emerges from there is a fresh take on the slice-of-life drama, with little capital-A Action but expertly rendered character studies. Subtle parallels emerge between the diverse ensemble members as they share (and eavesdrop on) their stories, having nothing else to do during a painstaking day of waiting.
We meet a total of nine characters: one is there for a routine check-in, three for outpatient surgery, and three for moral support, however bad they are at giving it. The remaining pair are doctors, floating in and out with news good and bad. I'm Revolting has put together a stellar cast for these characters, with spectacular ensemble work across the board. Alicia Pilgrim is a standout as Reggie, a 19-year-old whose obsession with looks reveals deeper insecurities, and Gabby Beans hits every comic note as her well-meaning but workaholic sister Anna. Patrick Vaill, known for playing Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, brings a similar brooding energy to Toby, a depressed millennial whose mother Paula (Laura Esterman), a holistic medicine devotee, has guilted him into thinking he brought his disease on himself.
Flying largely under the radar until the play's second half are Jordan (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Liane (Emily Cass McDonnell), an unhappily married couple driven apart by Liane's cancer. Clyde (Peter Gerety), an eccentric veteran of the clinic visiting alone, rounds out the waiting-room party, providing wanted and unwanted wisdom to the newcomers. Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Bartley Booz, as the veteran doctor Denise and the young resident Jonathan, are largely one-note, but they get to showcase more depth in the poignant, if abrupt, final scene.
Gardner, who is also an EMT, sports her medical knowledge outright with some jargon here and there. But more subtly, her lived experience is likely what makes I'm Revolting feel so authentic even in its zaniest moments, like when Paula pulls out her singing bowls for a holistic healing session in the middle of the clinic floor. Gardner is also not afraid to investigate people's fears and mistrust of doctors, blurring the line between where it's irrational and warranted. Anna's insistence, however overbearing, that Reggie see a Black doctor and advocate for herself if something feels off isn't without merit in a world where medical racism is rampant. In another scene, Clyde expresses skepticism at another person's sudden recovery. He's overstepping, perhaps, but the audience can't help but worry, too.
It's at this point that I'm Revolting steers out of dark comedy territory and just gets dark. The final 20 minutes are harrowing, but they reveal the clever depth of the play's title. Every character is revolting in some way — some in the rebellious sense, revolting against either doctors or their loved ones' counsel. All the cancer patients have cells "revolting," as Paula flippantly puts it, against their own bodies. Some characters fear being "revolting" in the ugly, disgusting sense as a result of their cancer. Some of those fears are realized.
The play may upset those who have been in its characters' position. For anyone else looking for sharp comedy, genuinely shocking dramatic twists, and excellent performances, I'm Revolting is a must-see.
Photo credit: Laura Esterman, Patrick Vaill, Glenn Fitzgerald, Emily Cass McDonnell, Peter Gerety, and Alicia Pilgrim in I'm Revolting. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
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