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Marvin’s Room





                             By Ron Cohen


Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room is a crazy quilt of familial attachments and tensions, deep sickness and the fulfilling nature of caring for one another. It’s threaded together with laughs, lots of them, softening the pain of its depictions of physical debilitation and mental instability. An off-Broadway hit in the early 1990s and later adapted into a movie, the play is now making its belated Broadway premiere in a beautifully acted revival from Roundabout Theatre Company. Like a prized vintage quilt, it’s a little tattered at the edges but still comforting and darkly cozy.


The work was the second and final full-length play written by McPherson, who died in 1992 of complications from AIDS at age 33. His partner had earlier succumbed to the disease, and McPherson’s writing is colored by the pervasive threat of illness and abrupt mortality that marked much of that period. At the same time, it’s determined to find the humor in adversity and joy in living. While it can be deeply touching, it also bears the marks of a young work, with plot lines that are never deeply explored or really resolved and humor that at times borders on cartoon.


The opening scene sets the tone. Bessie (Lili Taylor) has spent much of her life in Florida caring for two long-time invalids, her father, Marvin, and her aunt, Ruth. Now, Bessie is in a doctor’s office to find out why she herself is not feeling well. As the doctor (Triney Sandoval) prepares to draw blood, the scene is filled with jokes, many of them rising out of the doctor’s fumbling nature and inability to remember names. For example, he assures Bessie that the cotton balls he is about to use are sanitary because they’re sealed in a bag; he then proceeds to tear the bag open with his teeth.



The gags continue when Bessie arrives home and converses with Ruth. (Throughout the play, Marvin, with an encyclopedia of ailments, is embedded in his own titular room, and while heard, is never seen by the audience.) Among the funny stuff, Ruth (Celia Weston) suffers from collapsed vertebrae and has a device wired to her brain that she can dial up to alleviate the pain. When she uses the device in the kitchen, it also opens the garage door.



Tempering such frivolity is the cloud of Bessie’s diagnosis, and when she learns she has leukemia, she calls upon her sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), whom she hasn’t seen in years, to be tested for a bone marrow match for a transplant. If Lee is not a good match, there’s also the possibility that one of her two sons may be one.



A single mother working for her degree in cosmetology, Lee has her own problems. Her older son, Hank (Jack DiFalco), is remote and hostile and has been placed in a mental institution after burning the family house down. Charlie (Luca Padovan), his younger brother, is an avid reader but is having learning problems at school. Still, family is family, and Lee and the two boys make the trip from their home in Ohio to Florida for the bone marrow tests and to help out Bessie in her time of need.


The interactions that take place as the characters discover the ineffable bonds of family connection take up the rest of the play. If some of it seems a little too muted, there’s more than enough grace and compassion to engage your own emotions.


Not particularly helping is the sleekly handsome set of Laura Jellinek, with sections revolving handily to create the play’s various locales, including a journey to Disney World. It’s eye candy to look at, but with its glass brick walls, nicely equipped kitchen and smart white plush living room chairs, it comes across more like a display of model rooms rather than the lived-in surroundings of a severely impaired family.


Heavily on the plus side are the well-etched performances throughout the eight-person company. While the pacing of director Anne Kaufman, making a Broadway debut after a string of Off-Broadway successes, sometimes seems negligible, she has guided her leading ladies into a trio of highly affecting portrayals.


Garofalo’s Lee doles out compassion in small portions, but Garofalo lets you know its’s there and genuine, and when her own gnawing problems with her son Hank, well played by DiFalco, come to the fore, Garofalo makes the moment quite moving. Weston keeps Ruth’s ditziness in check, adding smartly to the humor of her observations on the predicaments of her life and those around her, as well as the soap opera to which she’s addicted.


Most of all, though, it is the quiet spirit of Taylor’s Bessie that feeds the play’s heart and soul. She captures and transmits the palpable goodness of a woman serving others without a hint of self-sacrifice or a smidgen of saccharine, while bravely but without bravura facing her own potential doom. If you don’t already, Taylor could make you believe in angels…or at least understand what makes them tick.


As McPherson himself wrote, in a program note from 1990 printed in the current production’s Playbill: “Now I am 31, and my lover has AIDS. Our friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another.”


If you’re hypochondriac, this is probably not a play for you. But if you’re looking for some life-affirming nourishment, Marvin’s Room provides it, granted, in uneven doses, but smiling almost all the time.


Broadway play

Playing at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre

227 West 42nd Street

212 719 1300

Playing until August 27.