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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As the play opens, Marvin's daughter Bessie, who's been his devoted caretaker all those years, is diagnosed with leukemia. Unless she can get a bone marrow transplant she's more likely to die before Marvin and her Aunt Ruth, whose forgetfulness and constant pain from a back condition make her another charge rather than an assistant care taker.
When Marvin's Room had its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizon in 1991 it resonated with a special depth since the AIDS epidemic was at its height. With no happy ending to McPherson's unflinching look at death, it was hardly a setup for a feel good theatrical experience.
Yet, though the playwright was influenced by the plague that had already struck his lover and to which he would succumb shortly thereafter, it was never an AIDS play. Instead, it was a one-of-a-kind look at how love and caring can ease the journey through a brutal fate as well as how families can fall apart and come together again. McPherson made Bessie and her family memorably and endearingly human — and, yes, funny.
While the play offered no facile ending, the finely nuanced writing and Laura Esterman's extraordinary Bessie moved audiences deeply. Thus that Playwright Horizon production transcended its brief run and received other well received mountings. It also became a star-studded film (for which McPherson was still well enough to write the script.
Now the Roundabout company has brought Marvin's Room back for another premiere, this time its first production on Broadway. Since it's no longer as overcast by the shadow of AIDs, it more than ever proves that its relevance is not limited to the time it was written. More people than ever desperately need loving care to see them through harsh fates. There's an ever growing population of opioid addicts, old people with Alzheimer's, veterans physically and emotionally crippled in foreign wars. And, of course, even those well enough to care for those who are not will eventually meet the Grim Reaper. It's still quite poignant and still funny — though not all the funny stuff still works (like the business about Ruth's soap operas).
As helmed Anne Kauffman, the talented director for whom this is also a Broadway debut, and a performed by an able ensemble, Marvin's Room remains a moving, well constructed portrait of a woman who has spent her adult life as the loving caretaker of a terminally ill father.
The powerful secondary plot reunites the sisters and also introduces Lee's troubled sons to the aunt they never met. That reunion, prompted by long dormant family feelings, brings Lee and her boys to Bessie's Florida house with the hope that one of them has the right blood for to make Bessie's life saving bone marrow transplant possible.
Bessie is in good hands with Lili Taylor to play her. TV and film comedienne Janeane Garofalo, another Broadway first timer, is also well cast as the sister whose selfish avoidance of family obligations has hardly resulted in a trouble free, happy life.
Jack DiFalco and Luca Padovan are fine as brothers Hank and Charlie, whose first meeting with their aunt will entail a somewhat scary medical procedure. The gradually building relationship between Hank and Bessie is especially touching since he's on leave from the institution where he landed after setting his house as well as the whole neighborhood on fire. Celia Weston, an unfailingly impressive actress is terrific as Bessie's more needy than helpful companion, Aunt Ruth.
The play starts off with a scene that displays the playwright's gift for mining grim subjects like terminal cancer for humor. Set in a hospital examining room it establishes that all is not well with Bessie. The absurdly funny turnaround of the patient-doctor relationship has Bessie calmly but firmly guiding the wildly incompetent and nervous Dr. Wally (a hilarious Triney Sandoval) into drawing her blood. This comic setup is repeated when a second visit to the hospital and she has to nudge him into telling her just what's wrong.
Nedra McClyde rounds out the cast with a double role of Hank's psychiatrist Dr. Charlotte and the director of a retirement home. Bessie and Lee's visit to that home to see if it might be a place for Marvin and Aunt Ruth if Bessie could no longer care for them is a grim reminder of the draconian health care bill currently on the legislative agenda.
The rather too slow pacing is picked up by the heart-tugging emotional interactions. Our affection and admiration for Bessie is likely to be strongest when we watch her enjoy getting to know her nephews. She shows more understanding for Hank's difficulties than the psychiatrist at the institution. No wonder even the self absorbed Lee is finally able to do something for the sister who has found genuine joy in loving others. What she does isn't much, but I dare you not to choke up watching Lee use her cosmotologist's skills to style her sister's chemotherapy wig.
A delicate play like this doesn't need a lot of sophisticated production values and probably works best in a smaller, more intimate theater. However, the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater's wide stage and big seating capacity does call for a fairly sophisticated set to move the story around its various locations.
As Scott McPherson's script accommodated both sadness and humor, so scenic designer Laura Jellinek provides us not only with those fuzzy glimpses of Marvin's room but lets the action slide and glide from Florida to Ohio and even to Disneyland. Still, even with the help of lighting designer Japhy Weideman to focus in on just one setting at a time, the big stage makes a real sense of intimacy impossible. In addition, the actors don't always project enough, for audience members to hear everything said during scenes at the opposite end of where they're sitting.
Even if all the comic business still landed throughout instead of rather sporadically, it's not as a comedy that Marvin's Room survives but as a very human look at life, love and death.
Despite its two teen aged characters, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone as young as the play's Charley. In fact, anyone not ready to shed a few tears should go for a ticket to a high stepping musical or a comic riff like The Play That Went Wrong.
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Marvin's Room by Scott McPherson
Directed by Ann Kauffman
Cast: Janeane Garofalo (Lee), Lili Taylor (Bessie), Celia Weston (Ruth), Jack DiFalco (Hank), Carman Lacivita (Bob/Marvin), Nedra McClyde (Dr. Charlotte/Retirement Director), Luca Padovan (Charlie), and Triney Sandoval (Dr. Wally).
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Original Music & Sound: Daniel Kluger
Hair and Wigs: Leah J. Loukas
Movement Consultant: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Barclay Stiff
Running Time: 2 hours plus 15 minute intermission
Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre 227 West 42nd Street
Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00PM.
From 6/08/17; opening 6/29/17;closing 8/27/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/24/17 press preview
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