Calamity comes in Costco-style jumbo packages for the fractured family in “Marvin’s Room,” Scott McPherson’s play about the beleaguering trials and little triumphs collectively known as life. Trials, I’m afraid, trump triumphs in this melancholy comedy. The title character alone has suffered a stroke and lost his colon to cancer. He’s got just one functioning eye and one remaining kidney. And did I mention the diabetes?
But it’s not the travails of Marvin, who remains unseen throughout the play, bedbound and only heard from when he grows restive, that sets the plot in motion. It is the sudden illness of one of Marvin’s daughters, Bessie (Lili Taylor), who discovers early on that what she thought was just a vitamin deficiency is in fact leukemia. Bessie’s only hope is finding a donor match for a bone marrow transplant, which brings back into her orbit Bessie’s long-estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), who is accompanied by her two sons, the troubled 17-year-old Hank (Jack DiFalco), and his younger brother Charlie (Luca Padovan).
McPherson’s play, making its Broadway debut in an achingly lovely revival from the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, dates from 1990, not coincidentally among the peak years of the AIDS epidemic. The playwright lost his partner to the disease before dying from it himself in 1992. During the early years of the play’s success – it started at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, moved Off Broadway and was widely produced at regional theaters – it was impossible to watch it without feeling that, while AIDS itself does not impinge on the lives of its characters, nevertheless McPherson was holding up a dark funhouse mirror to those frightening years, when for many the specter of death was as close and as inescapable as your own shadow.
It might be surmised that some quarter century later McPherson’s bleak comedy might have lost some of its sting, now that the central metaphor of illness – the ghostly presence of the AIDS crisis – has somewhat abated. But in fact “Marvin’s Room,” seen today in the director Anne Kauffman’s delicately hued but big-hearted production, seems as mordantly and ruefully truthful as ever. Maybe more so. As baby boomers struggle with issues of end-of-life care for their parents, and indeed themselves, and health care (mental and physical) has become a defining issue, if not the defining issue, in American political life, “Marvin’s Room” feels even more acute and piercingly funny.
Taylor’s Bessie provides the play’s soft emotional center. Never married, Bessie has dedicated years of her life to taking care of her ailing father and his sister, Ruth (the priceless Celia Weston), with whom she lives in Florida. Taylor’s husky, girlish voice seems fitting for Bessie, who has been stuck in the role of dutiful daughter, but a daughter who now plays the role of caretaking parent to her aging relatives. Still, she has retained a bloom of optimism despite the hardness of her life. Even when things look most dark, Taylor’s Bessie meets the grim things life throws at her with an easy equanimity, as if truly grateful for the little pile of blessings she’s been granted. If there’s a whiff of the saintly in Bessie, Taylor crisply bats away that halo over her head with her earthy, sentimentality-scrubbed performance.
Her sister Lee, who left the family behind for a new life and has hardly looked back, has a rougher edge and a sharper tongue. Garofalo, the comic and actor who broke through in the 1990s, here makes a skilled Broadway debut. She and Taylor could almost be sisters, and Garofalo brings a bruised swagger to the role, as Lee grapples ineffectually, like a lion tamer who failed the final exam, with her deeply embittered, emotionally fragile son. Lee’s attempts at tough love mostly backfire, leaving Bessie to calm the troubled waters.
As Hank, who burned down the family house and has subsequently been living in a mental institution, DiFalco wears a mask of truculent defiance that rarely slips. Playing the grumbling bad boy, he shruggingly refuses to commit to having a test to see whether he’s a donor match for Bessie, even as Charlie, played with a sparky good humor by Padovan, cheerfully looks at it as an adventure.
Not all of McPherson’s tart-but-sweet humor, which resembles Christopher Durang doused genially in fabric softener, has aged perfectly. The running gag about Ruth’s deep emotional engagement with her favorite soap opera feels a bit past its first freshness – soap operas are all but extinct. And the play’s small scale and keen focus on the quiet emotional interplay among its characters can sometimes feel a bit lost on the wide expanse of a Broadway stage.
The set, by Laura Jellinek, with its high decorative cement-block walls, at times suggests the lobby of a Miami Beach hotel. But then again you could find a moving metaphor embedded in the contrast: the play’s characters are indeed a bit lost themselves as they grapple as best they can with a bewildering array of problems, surrounded by high walls of pain, illness and emotional dysfunction, with no ladders in sight.
And Kauffman and her flawless cast manage to make the play’s steady accrual of small moments of wry humor and undeniable pathos add up to a rich emotional payoff. It is always a joy to watch Weston, for example, at work. While Ruth is no match for Marvin when it comes to frailty, she is hardly hale herself: She’s been plagued by back troubles all her life, but has had brain implants that allow her to control her pain with the flick of a dial. The only hitch: when she fiddles with it in the kitchen the garage door goes haywire. That running gag still raises sweet smiles, and Weston brings a moving, warm matter-of-factness to Ruth’s acceptance of her family’s various plagues.
Strongly dappled as it is by images of illness and mortality, “Marvin’s Room” still shines with vital, quirky life. In the central character of Bessie, McPherson has created a memorable figure who embodies the truism that while everyone will endure losses and grief, we are defined not by the ills that befall us but by the grace and good humor with which we meet them. The play gently reverses another familiar truth, too, that in the midst of life we are in death. In McPherson’s affectingly topsy-turvy view, in the midst of death we are in life. █