Bessie (Lili Taylor) has been the Miami, live-in caregiver of her bedbound, slowly dying father Marvin -“so I don’t miss anything” whom we never see and half-there, somewhat crippled Aunt Ruth (Celia Weston) for twenty years. She’s a cheerful, all-accepting latter day Saint.
When, at a check-up, addled Doctor Wally (Triney Sandoval) can’t remember Bessie’s name, sits on the tourniquet, kills a large cockroach, and takes an inordinate amount of blood to ostensibly check for vitamin deficiency, one wants yell “Walk Out!” This is only the first of a series of encounters with characters who deserve a good shaking or worse.
Jack DiFalco and Janeane Garofalo
It turns out Bessie has leukemia. Her only hope is a bone marrow transplant from long estranged, deeply selfish sister Lee (Jeneane Garofalo) up for worst mother of the year or, at a stretch, Lee’s children, 17 year-old Hank (Jack DiFalco) and perhaps 12 year-old Charlie (Luca Padovan). Initially resisting the trip, Lee gets roiling, petulant Hank out of the institution where he’s been incarcerated for burning down her house (and half those adjoining), packs up both kids and flies west. Responsibility, guilt, compassion, and survival come into play. Difficult relationships flare and shift as, eventually, does ground beneath them.
Marvin’s Room was written in the throes of The AIDS Epidemic in 1990. Its author experienced some of what he dramatized with a family member who had cancer – and her selfless caregiver, some with friends. There were people who met the heart-wrenching challenge, others who fled. His lover died of AIDS. Scott McPherson would follow.
So much death requires humor to be digestible. The playwright wields his with a fairly skillful hand. Frank Rich’s 1991 review of the original production found the piece “fast moving and funny.” If it was once worthy of either adjective, however, neither applies now. Pacing slogs and humor, though recognized, rarely elicits laughter. (I didn’t see the 1996 film.)
Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, Jack DiFalco
Respectable acting, especially that of Celia Weston and the brooding Jack DiFalco, can’t rescue a play where characters with a tendency to cliché indulge the aspect; where energy is so low, approach so monotone, you may fall asleep several times.
Director Anne Kaufman leaves her cast to recite words. She attributes none of them with individuality past the page. Though physical use of the stage is fine, the only emotions raised are frustration and irritation. It’s even a chore to have sympathy for the extremely put upon and then ill Bessie. Subtle connections are met as if starving.
Lili Taylor and Celia Weston
Laura Jellinek’s Set is not only ugly and cheap looking, but thoroughly confusing. When a thick glass wall appears not only at the hospital but in Bessie’s home, furniture is the same at both those locales, inside and outside the house are indistinguishable from one another. Loved the pirate (see above) but Jellinek’s idea of a merry-go-round looks like a flying saucer.
As to Jessica Pabst’s Costumes, perhaps she has secret justification for leaving Lee in opaque black tights and booties under Miami heat.
Also featuring Nedra McClyde forced into cartoon personification and Carman Lacivita.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Marvin’s Room by Scott McPherson
Directed by Anne Kauffman
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Through August 27, 2017