Theater review by Adam Feldman
Bessie (Lili Taylor) is a living saint, but probably not for long. She has spent 20 years of her life tending to her stroke-stricken father Marvin—whom we see only through thick glass, as a whimpering blur—and her chronically ill aunt Ruth (an amiably shambling Celia Weston). Now that Bessie herself has leukemia, her survival may depend on less generous family members: her sister, Lee (a flinty Janeane Garofalo), whom she hasn’t seen in years, and Lee’s two sons, the brooding Hank (Jack DiFalco) and the recessive Charlie (Luca Padovan). Although they have troubles of their own—Hank is in a mental hospital after burning down their house—they visit Bessie in Florida for bone marrow tests to see if they can serve as donors.
Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room may sound, from that description, like a certain kind of TV movie of the week. But this pained yet comforting play cuts its sentiment with laughing-into-the-darkness comedy, just this side of absurdism, that reflects the influence of John Guare and Christopher Durang. And it also suggests a deep understanding of illness and sacrifice, drawn from McPherson’s personal family history and the world he inhabited. “I am 31, and my lover has AIDS,” he wrote in a program note for the play’s 1990 Hartford production. “Our friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick.” He died in 1992.
Anne Kauffman’s luminous revival for the Roundabout tends to McPherson’s legacy with grace. She plays down the wildness of the humor, and the first act leans toward placidity. This strategy pays off later, however, as Taylor’s performance—gently weird, shadowed with defeat—takes bloom. Without pushing its virtue too hard, the play movingly depicts a world in which loving others is, as it often has to be, its own reward.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Scott McPherson. Directed by Anne Kauffman. With Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, Celia Weston, Jack DiFalco. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. Through Aug 27.
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