“Doesn’t anyone know what a pancreas is?”
That’s not a rhetorical question. It was a wail of frustration from a woman who’s just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Instead of sympathy and concern, however, she got questions like “Can’t they just cut it out, like an appendix?”
“No, they can’t,” Carole Real says. “It’s a vital gland that’s critical in the digestion of food.”
But being a playwright, and a very funny lady to boot, Real made her pancreas the star of her new play, titled, of course, Doesn’t Anyone Know What A Pancreas Is?
Her pancreatic cancer, she hastens to add, was a misdiagnosis, but it changed her life considerably. For one thing, she signed on to three internet dating services, and for 18 months she pursued the hunt for Mr. Right “as if it were my full-time job.”
“There’s nothing like facing your own mortality to make you willing to date,” she says.
It’s a line she gives to Ian Alda, who plays her doppelganger in the play. As he faces his own pancreatic drama and his frantic quest for a partner, he notes solemnly that he’s “dropped all physical requirements.”
Happily, Real met Mr. Right, a former stand-up comic whom she calls her “spouse equivalent.” “I took one look at him and there was that ‘click’, and I knew I was going to be stuck with him for the rest of my life,” she says.
As for Mr. Right, on their third date he acknowledged that he thinks that "marriage is a horrible, despicable, terrible institution, but for you I’d make an exception.”
Who could resist a proposal like that? And so they are now engaged.
But to get back to the play. It’s being directed by the inimitable Jenny O’Hara, who calls Real “one of my favorite playwrights.”
“It’s great to have a director who is an actor,” Real responds. “Especially one who understands the funny.”
This is not their first time working together. O’Hara directed a workshop performance of Real’s one-act We Used to be Fun, which ran for eight performances.
Real’s other one-acts include Why the Beach Boys Are Like Opera, Don’t Say Another Word, and The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry. “This last is very popular in Asia,” she says, mystified.
Doesn’t Anyone Know What A Pancreas Is? is Real’s first full production. With only five days to go before it opens, Real calms her director’s jitters by declaring “Five days is eons in theater time.”
Meanwhile, O’Hara is juggling her directing duties with an acting role in a movie called BFFs (Best Friends Forever). “It was written, produced and stars Andrea Grano and Tara Karsian, and it’s hilarious. Once I read the script I knew I had to be in it,” she says. “It’s about two girlfriends with hopeless love lives who receive a gift of a couples weekend at a spa. There are five couples at this lover’s retreat, and Richard Moll and I are one of the couples. Once the picture is finished, it will hit all the festivals.”
O’Hara appeared most recently in LA at the Fountain Theatre, co-starring with her husband, British actor Nick Ullett, in Bakersfield Mist, a smash hit that ran for eight months.
She also appeared with him for two years in New York on the popular soap opera As The World Turns. She was a director trainee, waiting for him to recover from cancer and a bone marrow transplant. Because there was no paycheck provided in the training program, the writers wrote her into the script so she could be paid as an actor, and the part became a fixture for two years. When Ullett recovered, they also incorporated him into the script and manufactured a love interest between the two of them. In the end, when the couple decided to return home to California, the writers wrote an elopement scene for them, and off they went, never to be seen on the show again.
Back in California they have been active members of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at its Atwater Village Theatre home. O’Hara sings the praises of that theater’s new second space. Called “Speakeasy,” it’s running the premieres of two plays in repertory. The venue is equipped with tables and chairs, sofas, a “tasty array” of snacks, and decent wine, she says.
In addition to Pancreas, which runs from November 14 through December 9, The Fisherman’s Wife, “a jaunty little sex comedy with sex creatures” according to playwright Steve Yockey in LA STAGE Times, opened October 25 and will run through December 13.
“We’ve had to design our set to comply with the lighting arrangement of The Fisherman’s Wife,” O’Hara says, “because they’re up first and there’s no room for alternate setups. It’s a very small space, so that the audience will feel as if they’re eavesdropping on the conversations. Which is okay, because the message of our play is that everybody struggles, everybody is equally messed up, and you’re not alone.
“The struggle is for comfort, settling in, authenticity…not working for perfection. After all, nothing is perfect, “ she concludes.
“Yes, you’ve got to remember that after 60 or 70, nobody’s hot,” Real adds.
“The play is very well written; there’s no problematic writing,” O’Hara says. “I stand by that.”
“It’s a laugh machine,” Real says. “But it’s the laughter of recognition. Ian, our lead, is worried, eccentric, and lovable. Like a young Dustin Hoffman.”
Also featured in the cast are Annika Marks (currently on screen in The Sessions), Patty Cornell, William Duffy, Will McFadden, Heather Robinson, and Liz Ross.
“Our play is running in November, which happens to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month,” Real notes.
“Me, I’m waiting for National Hemorrhoid Week,” says O’Hara.
Doesn’t Anyone Know What A Pancreas Is? is currently running at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s Speakeasy, Atwater VillageTheatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm, some Mondays at 8 pm. through Dec. 9. For tickets visit www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org or call 323-644-1929.