There’s a story told in “Marvin’s Room” of a young man named Clarence who took a swim during a beachfront picnic, dunking down into the water and popping back up several times, each time laughing harder, which got his friends and family to laugh along with him.
“Laughing and choking looked the same on Clarence,” the storyteller concludes. “He drowned right in front of us.”
The anecdote can be taken as playwright Scott McPherson’s sly commentary on his own play, a 1991 comedy about two sisters who reunite after a 20-year estrangement. So much is so sad in the lives of Bessie (Lily Taylor) and Lee (Janeane Garofalo, in her Broadway debut) as to make the audience fully justified in wondering: Should we be laughing at this?
Yet laugh we do, thanks to the playwright’s subversive worldview, and a production directed with unflashy effectiveness by Anne Kauffman (The Nether, A Life, etc. etc), who is, remarkably, making her Broadway debut. She steers the uniformly credible cast through a sometimes flighty comedy ultimately grounded in compassion.
Bessie has been taking care of her father, Marvin, who has been dying for the last 20 years. (We only see Marvin in vague shadow, behind the glass brick of the room he never leaves.) She is also in effect the caretaker of Marvin’s sister Aunt Ruth (Celia Weston), whose brain has been wired to stop the debilitating back pain she’s had since birth. In the first scene of the play, we see Bessie in a doctor’s office, and eventually learn she has leukemia.
Her illness leads to the visit to Bessie’s Florida house by her sister Lee, who makes the trip from her home in Ohio with her two children, Charlie (Luca Padovan) and Hank (Jack DiFalco). One of the three may be a match for a bone marrow transplant. Hank had to be borrowed temporarily from the mental institution to which he has been committed for burning down the family house.
So what is funny about any of this?
It’s all in the spin. Three quick examples: In that first scene, Bessie is increasingly nervous dealing with Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval), a doctor who is so absent-minded that he calls Bessie June, which is the name of his dog; has trouble finding or even identifying his doctor’s tools; and rips open a sterile bag of cotton balls with his teeth. In Bessie’s house, the wiring in Aunt Ruth’s brain keep on causing the garage door to open. When in Ohio Lee tells 17-year-old Hank about his aunt Bessie’s condition, he says: “This is the first I’ve heard of her. “
Lee: “,,,,Well I know I’ve mentioned her. She’s my sister.”
Hank: “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
Lee: “You know how at Christmas I always say, ‘it looks like Bessie didn’t send a card this year either.’”
Hank: “Oh yeah.”
They get away (sometimes just barely) with the wackier of these comic touches because they are counterbalanced by the more realistic ones, and because the actors pull it off.
It probably needs to be said that the eight performers of this production must labor against the memory of the 1996 film with its impossibly starry cast — Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton as the sisters, Leonardo diCaprio as the troubled son Hank, even Robert DeNiro as the absent-minded doctor. (Bit parts went to Cynthia Nixon, Hume Cronyn, and Kelly Ripa!) But there is only one memory from the movie that intruded on my appreciation of the Broadway production – the heartbreaking moment when Diane Keaton as the frail Bessie says how lucky she has been to have been able to take care of her father and her aunt; “I’ve had such love in my life.” It’s not that there is anything wrong with Taylor’s delivery, only that Keaton’s was so memorable. As Lee, Janeane Garafola, who started her career as a stand-up comedian, is a thoroughly competent dramatic actress (if not yet Meryl Streep), giving a straightforward performance in a role that is not as substantive as Lee’s sister.
It is Bessie who is really the soul of “Marvin’s Room,” her selflessness and efficiency not just contrasting with the selfishness and/or incompetence of those around her, but subtly transforming nearly everybody, including her sister. We see this effect even in the largely comic character of Aunt Ruth, whose portrayal by Celia Weston is one of the two stand-out performances in this revival. We also see Bessie’s effect in the other stand-out performance, Jack DiFalco as Hank. The playwright depicts the character benevolently, making Hank’s deranged arson into little more than a punch line, almost a rite of passage for sullen teenagers. Still, DiFalco, in impressive contrast to the blunt-force performance he gave as a criminal teenager of the future in Mercury Fur (a style required for that play), creates a character with more of an internal life than an external one. He has a deadpan delivery, but somehow lets us know there’s struggling, and thinking and growing going on in there. It is a character we not only believe, but feel for. We wind up sharing in the playwright’s guarded optimism in the face of defeat, all the more singular since, shortly after the debut of his play,Scott McPherson died of AIDS, at the unholy young age of 33.
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater
Written by Scott McPherson; Original music by Daniel Kluger
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek; Costume Design by Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Daniel Kluger; Hair and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas; Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas
Cast: Janeane Garofalo as Lee, Lili Taylor as Bessie, Celia Weston as Ruth, Jack DiFalco as Hank, Carman Lacivita, Nedra McClyde, Luca Padovan as Charlie, Triney Sandoval as Dr. Wally
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $47 to $147
Marvin’s Room is scheduled to run through August 27, 2017