By Samuel L. Leiter . . . 

You Will Get Sick, Noah Diaz’s frequently puzzling new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, may have the most off-putting title around, but its content is also not designed to warm the cockles of your heart. A fever dream about the inevitability of mortal sickness, and the need for loving care—if that is, in fact, what it’s about—it tells its story via surrealistic scenes into which are embroidered metaphoric allusions to The Wizard of Oz. (As I write this, I get an email informing me that, sadly, Douglas McGrath, writer/star of another Off-Broadway play, Everything’s Fine, which I was to see in a few days, passed away suddenly on November 3. Covid has been damaging shows all season; ironically, the only one ended by a fatality had nothing to do with Covid.)

There are five actors, designated by numbers 1 through 5, four of them playing more than one person, most of them also given names. The unnamed #1 (Daniel K. Isaac, The Chinese Lady) is a youngish man living in “the Big City.” Alone after his boyfriend, Liam (Nate Miller), left him, he has contracted a non-specific illness that is robbing him of physical strength and mobility, while also eating away at his brain. It’s almost as if, in fact, he’s turning to straw. Given the play’s stylistic freedom, we actually witness him puking hay, brushing it from his hair, and pulling tufts of it from his shirt. This links him to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who, as everybody knows, believes himself bereft of his cerebral organ. 

Linda Lavin

But #1 is so traumatized by his incurable disease—his brother, Patrick, died young, apparently from something similar—he’s unable to find the courage to inform his own sister of it; he can’t even say the word “sick,” despite all the opportunities he has to do so. So constrained is he that he posts flyers on telephone poles offering to pay someone to call him so he can hire them to undertake the task of contacting his sister on his behalf. 

This brings into his life #2, named Callan (the great Linda Lavin, who, even at 85, nearly rescues this mortally afflicted play). She’s an eternally optimistic, straightforward, wannabe actress preoccupied with auditioning for the role of Dorothy in a production of The Wizard of Oz. (“Great actors can do anything,” she tells #1, “they can play any age.”) When we watch her audition, her major problem is her habit of lowering her voice when she sings the lyric “way up high” in “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It’s a running joke. LOL.

#2 becomes #1’s caretaker, acting responsibly, but always in a transactional way, bargaining over how much #1 will pay her for each service she performs. At one point she wipes his sweaty brow, adding, “On the house.” It’s far from clear, but perhaps Mr. Diaz is suggesting that proper caretaking is an expensive proposition. #2 has a definite purpose in mind for the money she’s paid, however, one that also relates to The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, #1’s eventual mantra of longing for “home” connects to that story, as per Dorothy’s famous monologue in which she says, “All I kept saying to everybody was I wanted to go home and they sent me home.” At end, when the dark, unspecific set shifts strikingly to a sunlit Midwestern wheat field, #1’s wish will be fulfilled, although the meaning of “home” has, perhaps, a darker resonance.

Daniel K. Isaac

You Will Get Sick is written mostly in spare sentences, often coated with irony. Scenes take place in multiple locations, from a burger joint to a shower to a place selling wheelchairs and canes, and so forth. Marinda Anderson turns in excellent work as #1’s aggressively defensive, self-involved sister, a nosy coworker, and an acting teacher—the latter in a faintly amusing section satirizing an acting class. Nate Miller does well with several different men who all appear to #1 as different manifestations of his absent boyfriend. 

Mr. Isaac plays #1 with his familiar innocent demeanor, suggesting a gentle confusion about the world he inhabits. Although physically adept, he typically skirts the deeper pools of emotion, maintaining a surface naturalism bordering on everyman blandness. Ms. Lavin, on the other hand, brings her earthy naturalism and comic timing to her every moment, her nasal inflections and subtextual cynicism giving the airy play the ballast of a palpable personality without which it might otherwise fly away.

Linda Lavin, Daniel K. Isaac, Marinda Anderson

You Will Get Sick, which, for all its gloom over #1’s condition, also employs a tone of snarky gallows humor, takes place in a world where mortality is constantly threatened by giant black birds (crows, obviously, whose cawing and flapping form part of Lee Kinney’s imaginative soundscape), who snatch people up and fly off with them. I assume they symbolize the ever-present threat of illness, as Covid demonstrated, although the play was written before the pandemic. An untrustworthy-seeming fellow even appears to sell bird insurance, whose ultimate value is questionable.

Sam Pinkleton’s often clever direction, supported by the stylishly abstract scenery of dots, and the well-balanced chiaroscuro of Cho See’s lighting, goes a long way to capturing the play’s eccentricities. One of the latter is having the many stage directions spoken over a loudspeaker from offstage by an unseen—until the final moments—man (Dario Ladani Sanchez). Sometimes it’s #1’s thoughts: “You have asthma, her breathing makes you wonder if she has asthma too.” Sometimes it’s an action we’re watching at that very moment: “You try to rub the numb away.” And so on.

Such pretentious devices serve only to further distance our reception, turning what should affect us emotionally into a constant puzzle about authorial intentions. We’d likely feel a lot more if we weren’t thinking so much. To me, at any rate, that’s a definite no-brainer.

You Will Get Sick. Through December 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 

Photos: Joan Marcus