Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Marvin's Room

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - June 29, 2017

Marvin's Room by Scott McPherson. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Set Design by Laura Jellinek. Costume Design by Jessica Pabst. Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman. Sound Design by Daniel Kluger. Hair and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas. Movement Consultant Thomas Schall. Cast: Janeane Garofalo, Lili Taylor, Celia Weston, Jack DiFalco, Carman Lacivita, Nedra McClyde, Luca Padovan, Triney Sandoval.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues

Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor
Photo by Joan Marcus

Dark comedies don't get much darker that Scott McPherson's funny, sad, beautiful play Marvin's Room, about a caregiver who contracts a serious illness herself. It's a moving story in terms of content alone, and from its first presentation in 1990 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the play has carried the added emotional weight that its author was suffering from the scourge of AIDS. McPherson died in 1992, shortly after the acclaimed Playwrights Horizons production of his masterpiece ended its run. Now, Marvin's Room is on Broadway for the first time, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, in a staging that's eminently praiseworthy but for one major, surprising flaw.

The first scene of the play neatly encapsulates its ever-shifting tone, which often turns on a dime. A woman named Bessie is undergoing medical tests by the hilariously incompetent Doctor Wally, both of them hoping that her symptoms of illness (including fatigue and bruising) are caused by something as easily treatable as a vitamin deficiency. The scene then shifts to Bessie's home, where she cares for her bedridden father, Marvin—unseen except as a diffuse image through a wall of glass bricks at the rear of the stage, and only occasionally heard in some unintelligible utterances. The third member of the household is aunt Ruth, a sweet lady whose chronic back pain is alleviated by an electronic anesthetizer that has the side effect of opening the garage door whenever it's activated.

Soon, Bessie is diagnosed with something far worse than a vitamin deficiency—namely, leukemia—and is advised to contact her next of kin as possible bone marrow donors. These kin are her sister, Lee, from whom she has been estranged for years, and single-mom Lee's sons: Hank, a troubled teen who recently burned down the family house, and his preadolescent brother, Charlie. We soon learn that Lee has made no attempt over the years to assist in the care of Marvin. Whether she and/or her boys will come through for Bessie in her time of need is the crux of a plot that ends on a note at once heartbreaking and life affirming.

The Roundabout production could scarcely be bettered in terms of its cast, starting with the central role as played by Lili Taylor. This lovely actress's wonderfully open, guileless face, beautiful smile, and dulcet voice are all anyone could want in a caregiver, and she makes Bessie's quiet grit throughout her ordeal seem organic. Janeane Garofalo scores a highly successful Broadway debut as the far more complicated Lee, who has a heart underneath all the hurt but who only chooses to display it occasionally. The fact that Taylor and Garofalo are so believable as sisters in terms of their physical resemblance is a huge plus for the show. Another great actress, Celia Weston, makes the most of her time on stage as aunt Ruth, nailing several big laughs and skillfully handling some tear-inducing moments.

Jack DiFalco, also debuting on Broadway, is perfect as the taciturn Hank, who mentions more than once in a curt tone that he may refuse to be tested to see if his bone barrow is a match for Bessie's—not due to any antipathy toward his aunt, but simply because this is one the few elements of his life over which he has control. It must be a challenge to project Hank's flattened-affect personality onstage in a large theater, especially in this production (see below), but DiFalco does so skillfully. Luca Padovan is adorable as Charlie, his youth adding emotional layers to the play even if the character has little function in plot terms. Triney Sandoval is very funny as Dr. Wally, and in smaller roles, Carman Lacivita and Nedra McClyde also strike just the right comedic tone—not an easy accomplishment.

And now for the bad news, alluded to twice above. I first saw Marvin's Room in the Playwrights Horizons production after it had transferred from that company's home on 42nd Street to the Minetta Lane Theatre—a much smaller venue than the American Airlines Theatre, where the Roundabout production is ensconced, in terms of both stage space and house size. Presenting this play for the first time on Broadway, with all the attendant publicity and awards eligibility, is laudable; but it's hard to imagine why set designer Laura Jellinek, with the approval of director Anne Kauffman, decided to use virtually the entire width, depth, and height of the American Airlines' large stage for the oddly designed set on which the action unfolds. The theater's name becomes strangely apt in that what's supposed to be the humble, compact Florida home inhabited by Bessie and family has more the dimensions and look of a large airport lounge.

If only a false proscenium had been employed for this production, and/or the walls of the set has been moved in several feet on all sides, this problem would have been avoided. As it is, a considerable amount of intimacy is needlessly sacrificed, despite the actors' noble efforts to maintain it under direction by Kauffman that's strong and sure in every other respect. Happily, lighting designer Japhy Weideman works against the vastness of the stage expanse for a few isolated scenes that are played within smaller, well delineated areas, and Daniel Kluger's sound design helps keep most of the actors' lines audible yet natural-sounding even though the set and the staging don't aid audibility.

Scott McPherson's loss to AIDS is acutely tragic in that he was just coming into his own as an artist when he died at age 33. The brief candle of his great talent shines in the belated Broadway premiere of Marvin's Room, notwithstanding the design and staging miscalculation noted here. Please attend for an unforgettable night of theater, and also to honor the author's memory.

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