Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Broadway Review—Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room”

Marvin’s Room
Written by Scott McPherson; directed by Anne Kauffman
Performances through August 27, 2017
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo in Marvin's Room (photo: Joan Marcus)
The curiously inert production of Marvin’s Room—the lone play by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992, shortly after productions in Chicago and Off-Broadway—seems to be a result of the schizophrenic nature of the play itself, which, despite its sympathetic portrayal of an extended dysfunctional family dealing with mortality, never quite finds the right paths to take in its quasi-absurdism.

Middle-aged spinster Bessie has been the caregiver for her sickly father Marvin (with frail aunt Ruth in tow) in their Florida home for years, essentially giving up her own personal life to care for him. When she is stricken with leukemia, she calls her estranged sister Lee, who lives in Ohio with her troubled teenage son Hank and his younger brother Charlie, hoping one of them will be a match for an urgently needed bone marrow transplant. The Ohio trio arrives and sets up shop at Bessie’s house, where the family bit by bit attempts the difficult process of healing and forgiveness, despite death staring each of them in the face.

As staged by Anne Kauffman, Marvin’s Room rarely takes flight despite surefire tear-jerking subject matter—the opening scene of Bessie and her doctor trying to draw blood is played as farce, the doctor’s obvious ineptitude undercutting McPherson’s dark humor about the serious situation. As the play continues, jarring tonal shifts dominate, and Kauffman is unable to stabilize the uneasy balance of tragedy and laughs.

Laura Jellinek’s expansive set for these intimate goings-on—the geography of Bessie’s home is egregiously spread-out, making the family members even more remote from one another than McPherson has drawn them—further distances the audience from the emotions at the play’s core. But Kauffman does do well by her actors.

Jack DiFalco plays Hank’s detachment with a refreshing bluntness, while Luca Padovan is fine as bookworm Charlie. If Celia Weston overdoes Aunt Ruth’s neediness and aw-shucks demeanor she is nonetheless amusing and effective, and Janeane Garofalo nicely underplays Lee, preventing the relationship between sisters from becoming overly sentimental. Then there’s Lili Taylor, whose immensely affecting Bessie is the beating heart of an otherwise bumpy ride of a play and production.

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