By Cynthia Darling
In “Time On Fire: A Comedy of Terrors (Redux),” Evan Handler enters into conversation with who he was at 24 years old, portraying scenes from when he was undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia as a very young man, and exploring the interesting terrain of the years that followed.
We know Mr. Handler well for his acting roles, but what becomes abundantly clear after watching this show is his skill as a writer. This is a writer’s show‑one that lives and breathes words and sentences. The density of imagery and details, strung together in smooth sentences, beckons us to see and feel Mr. Handler’s intense history in the hospital, and in the world beyond.
Mr. Handler begins the show by introducing its experimental nature. He’ll combine stories he had performed years ago with new material that he is still perfecting. He’ll perform some sections off book, and read others from a script. Such an introduction allows for a certain level of play. We are interested to see how this all fits together.
The subject of Mr. Handler’s show is his illness, yes. But Mr. Handler also carefully attends to the details of the hospital where he was treated. A grim portrait takes shape‑not just of his illness, but of medical care itself. In some ways, the true horror is the medical care: the doctors appear like strange characters from a science fiction film, all focused on their own misery rather than the patient’s.
Other figures emerge as mythical saviors. One nurse, Karen, appears repeatedly, acting as a sort of ghostly oracle, warning Evan: perhaps you are not getting the right care. Perhaps you should get out.
Mr. Handler notes the strange phenomenon of doctors being afraid to give false hope. He analyzes hope as a concept, noting its lack of logic, its rising up as a desire. The doctors, he realizes, seem to be afraid of awakening their own hope, unable to get beyond themselves to attend to the patient.
A particularly surreal sequence in the show runs straight from a chemo ward to a sperm bank. The speed speaks to the blur of major procedures Mr. Handler endured in only a few days. Interestingly enough, he revisits a sperm bank later in a different context, but with some humorous similarities.
This cyclical theme pervades the show. Later in life, he and his new girlfriend take a pregnancy test, and discover she is pregnant. They are shocked that he could be fertile after the chemo, and fearful that it is too early in their relationship to have a child. That fear becomes joy a few years later in a similar scene. Mr. Handler and his wife stare down at a pregnancy test, his wife trembling, a new life for them on the horizon.
For portions of the show, Mr. Handler addresses the audience, telling stories like an old friend. Mr. Handler’s delivery is complex; his signature humor and philosophical insight make the show his, and his alone. Gradually a scene will rise to a key interaction, a phrase or sentence that says it all. Then, there will come that Handler moment of connection. He will turn to the audience, eyebrows slightly raised, his expression slightly aghast‑usually, always, a wide‑eyed humorous look‑even when the moment is awful. He shares with us his own awareness of the absurdity of life. And with that, he has us. The magic is his; the fire is lit.
“Time on Fire: A Comedy of Terrors (Redux)” reaches beyond Mr. Handler’s days in the hospital, as he faces dating and develops his acting career, all with the memory of having survived leukemia close at hand. Potential lovers express reluctance to date someone who sometimes doesn’t feel well. Bonding with friends over dating horrors turns to alienation, when Mr. Handler tells them about having sex in the hospital, and his friends fall silent. These interactions remind Mr. Handler of the chasm between his idea of normalcy and that of his friends and coworkers. The show is peppered with evocations of the delightfully mundane details that can accompany crises. Mr. Handler’s addiction to “Wheel of Fortune” as he rebuilds his immune system post‑surgery. His wearing a wig to auditions after losing his hair, and the wig tape coming loose.
He is reflective and honest about the relationships he ran from‑and broke up‑for years. He reveals his devilish charm when he remembers the fishnet stockings his wife wore when they first met.
Even fun glimpses into Mr. Handler’s life post‑cancer, working on “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Sex and the City,” are colored by his interactions with medical professionals. When he and his girlfriend seek an abortion, his past experiences with the medical establishment prove remarkably similar to the tactless behavior of gynecologists he meets. The doctor who ultimately performs the abortion has a poster of Clint Eastwood affixed to his office wall.
Transitions between major scenes and time periods would help pacing. Since the show packs in so much, a pause or a transition would help to signify a change. And it would give the audience time to absorb, allowing for an emotional breath. Although, the lack of transitions may be part of the point‑Mr. Handler’s frenetic life had few opportunities for pause.
However far Mr. Handler gets along in the narrative, he wants us with him. The punctuation marks he inserts throughout the show‑be they humorous or philosophical or pained‑are there for us to bear witness to. Rather than simply telling us how bad he had it, he asks us to live this moment of humanity together.
True to Mr. Handler’s ability to evoke many complex ideas at once, “Time On Fire: A Comedy of Terrors (Redux)” portrays how time has allowed him to evolve. In Mr. Handler’s rendering, it is not a contradiction to state that time has given him space to grow, and to remain exactly who he has always been.
“Time On Fire: A Comedy of Terrors (Redux)”
Written and Performed by Evan Handler
October 7, 15, 21, and November 17 at 7:30 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.