Illness makes egocentrics of us all, obsessed with the betrayal of our own bodies and quick to glom on to the tiniest indignities forced on weakened immune systems by the brutish world of the well. Sick people have full rights and privileges to kvetch, but once the sick or formerly sick turn illness into art — as Susan Sontag did her cancer in Illness as Metaphor or monologuist Spalding Gray did his eye problems on stage in Gray’s Anatomy — they have to do more than rail and rage: They also must, creepily enough, entertain. In showbiz terms, they need a shtick. Evan Handler’s talent, both as an artist and as a leukemia survivor, is that he’s a son of a bitch.
Of course, he’s also an actor, so he has a head start on self-absorption; the attitude is no act. Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors is an expansion of a one-man play Handler wrote and performed, to dandy reviews, in 1993, some five years after the bone-marrow transplant that ultimately saved his life. And it’s a great performance by a pill, with a guest appearance by cancer.
”At the time when I wound up in the hospital, I wouldn’t have considered myself to be the most widely loved or lovable actor on the planet,” Handler writes early in his story. He was 24 and had a good role on Broadway as an understudy in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues when his leukemia was diagnosed. ”My way of dealing with the frustrations of the business, the inevitable envy and resentments of watching others transcend my own success, had become the habit of telling anyone who would listen that I was the single-most brilliant actor alive in New York City.” In one paragraph are summed up all of Handler’s interesting talents: He’s blunt, swaggering, observant, and seductively charming in the self-awareness he brings to the parading of his own faults. Chronicling the five-year course of his illness — the initial treatment, the remission, the recurrence, the ”cure,” the recurrence, and the bone-marrow transplant that, God willing, cleaned him up for good — he never confuses himself with being a nice guy. Handler is an admitted tyrant to his family, a creep to his resilient longtime girlfriend, Jackie (the two eventually break up and remain friends, but not before she writes a theater piece about a woman caring for a sick, demanding boyfriend who finally dies), and a prima donna to his friends and professional colleagues. Best of all, he was (and presumably still is) the worst kind of nightmare for his doctors and medical caregivers: a well-read, inquisitive, well-connected, smart-alecky patient for whom the unquestioned procedure is never worth accepting.
The orneriness that helped save Handler’s life enlivens Time on Fire with moments of wit, passion, fury, and occasional brilliant shocks. The former patient is as energetically appreciative of those he likes (he’s particularly fond of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his transplant was performed) as he is withering about those he dislikes (woe unto New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and, in particular, to one doctor he singles out for searing disdain). He’s fresh and funny about the challenges of going to a sperm bank or maneuvering sex with Jackie in a hospital bathroom. His small observations — about IVs, lost hair, a New Age center for healing in Los Angeles he attended where people walked on hot coals — are described with the relish of a performer who knows his audience. Unlike Spalding Gray, Handler the storyteller does not wander with his IV pole down side corridors of free association; he sticks to a luxurious contemplation of his blood chemistry and the thoughts and events that occurred along the way and says Look at meeeeee!
In the end, Evan Handler’s world is unapologetically all about Evan, Evan, Evan. And why not. It’s his red blood cells, and he’ll cry if he wants to. You would cry too, if it happened to you. A-