Janeane Garofalo, Lili Taylor and Celia Weston in ‘Marvin’s Room.’ (Photo: Chris Buck)
By Samuel L. Leiter
What would you do for a loved one if he or she was dying, disabled, or in some other way in need of devoted care?
This universal dilemma is the meat and potatoes of Scott McPherson’s alternately funny and touching family drama, Marvin’s Room. Originally presented at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1990 and Off-Broadway in 1991, its all-star 1996 film version featured Diane Keaton as Bessie, Meryl Streep as Lee, Gwen Verdon as Aunt Ruth, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank.
Despite its many productions (I directed a college version), Marvin’s Room is only now, under the Roundabout’s aegis, being given a Broadway revival, with a fine company headed by Lily Taylor as Bessie, Janeane Garofalo as Lee, Celia Weston as Aunt Ruth, and Jack DiFalco as Hank. Often included under the rubric of AIDS-influenced writing, the play was written when McPherson, then 31, was enmeshed in a network of AIDS sufferers (his lover among them) and caregivers. He contracted the disease and passed at 33.
McPherson’s not concerned with a particular condition, but with the tender ways caregivers look after those in need. His heroine is Bessie, a sweet, noncomplaining spinster of 40 living in Florida. There, for the past 20 years, she’s been taking care of her father, whose stroke was only the first of a series of ailments that have confined him to an upstage room we see only dimly through a wall of translucent glass blocks.
Bessie is a virtual saint; she’s good enough even to look after her Aunt Ruth, a mildly dotty, soap opera-addicted biddy who controls her spinal pain by turning a dial wired to her brain that sometimes has the comically unintended effect of opening the garage door. McPherson uses this kind of black humor to play down the potential glumness of his situations, which grow glummer still when Bessie discovers she’s suffering from leukemia. In another reflection of McPherson’s wringing laughs from dread, Bessie learns of her illness from the klutzy, absentminded, but oh-so-earnest Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval).
As advised, Bessie seeks bone marrow transplants from her next of kin, which brings to her side her cosmetologist sister, Lee, who lives in Ohio, and from whom she’s been estranged so long she’s never met Lee’s 17-year-old son, Hank, or his bookworm kid brother, Charlie (Luca Padovan). One of the play’s unanswered questions is just why these obviously loving sisters grew so far apart.
Hank who’s burned down the family house, is in a mental institution (which family members are instructed to call a “loony bin” or “nut house”). The self-centered Lee, who’s never helped in her father’s care, is frustrated by her inability to control her angry son, whose problems seem rooted in the absence of his long-gone father.
With Lee, Hank, and Charlie settled in at Bessie’s, Marvin’s Room works out the intertwining caregiving relationships of Lee and Hank, Lee and Bessie, Bessie and Hank, and Hank and Charlie. The plot’s principal drivers are the questions of, first, will the emotionally armored Hank agree to be a donor and, second, even if he does, will any of the candidates prove suitable? Two hours-plus, however, is simply too long to wait while these questions are answered.
Under Anne Kauffman’s well-calibrated direction, the ensemble tempers its histrionics in favor of a natural matter-of-factness, which helps us invest in the characters. The velvet-voiced Taylor is immensely affecting as the selfless, nonjudgmental Bessie; Garofalo mingles her standup sass with Lee’s insecurities; Weston is appealing as the goofy aunt; and DiFalco makes us sympathize with Hank’s angst.
As the play proceeds, however, the narrative and emotional energy lag, partly because Daniel Kluger’s generic music is too infrequent to help raise our temperatures but chiefly because of Laura Jellinek’s spare, monotonous set, dominated by a tall, cinderblock-like wall. Although efficiently lit by Japhy Weideman, its wide open spaces on this large Broadway stage effectively rob the play of its much-needed intimacy. Also, for a production shifting furniture via a stage revolve, couldn’t those annoyingly visible stagehands have been avoided?
Sometimes, what works best Off-Broadway should stay Off-Broadway.
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through August 27
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).