Are we grimmer or dumber or colder than we were in 1991, when Frank Rich, in The New York Times, called Scott McPherson's "Marvin's Room" "one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving"? He did so even while noting that this "healing" comedy, then opening Off Broadway, featured three major characters dying or disintegrating - and a bunch of others arguably worse off. I ask because the Roundabout Theater Company revival that opened on Thursday, giving the play its Broadway debut, barely seems to be any of the things Mr. Rich listed. Thoughtfully directed by Anne Kauffman; keenly performed by Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo and especially Celia Weston; a pleasure to watch throughout - it is all of these. But it is somehow, also, fatally mild.
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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.
Broadway Review: ‘Marvin’s Room’ With Janeane Garofalo & Lili Taylor; ‘Measure For Measure’ With Jonathan Cake
It's to the credit of everyone involved - these committed actors, the sensitive director and most of all McPherson - that the connections slow to take hold are soldered like emotional strands that throw off sparks as they finally fuse. Even the vaguely batty Ruth - touchingly played by Celia Weston without an ounce of condescension - addicted to soap operas as she is to the little box that gives her a charge of relief (while setting off the automatic garage door at the same time) plays a key role. McPherson's roar of valedictory comes in Bessie's quiet remonstrance to Lee near the end, that her greatest fortune in life is not to have been loved but to have loved, fully and completely.
It might be surmised that some quarter century later McPherson's bleak comedy might have lost some of its sting, now that the central metaphor of illness - the ghostly presence of the AIDS crisis - has somewhat abated. But in fact "Marvin's Room," seen today in the director Anne Kauffman's delicately hued but big-hearted production, seems as mordantly and ruefully truthful as ever. Maybe more so. As baby boomers struggle with issues of end-of-life care for their parents, and indeed themselves, and health care (mental and physical) has become a defining issue, if not the defining issue, in American political life, "Marvin's Room" feels even more acute and piercingly funny.
The cast is excellent. Celia Weston expertly underplays Ruth's ditzy innocence; Janeane Garofalo makes an impressive Broadway debut as the controlling Lee; Jack Difalco as the disturbed Hank is a major talent; and in a role that could so easily turn maudlin, Lili Taylor's naturalistic performance is downright life-affirming.
That's perhaps unfair to Scott McPherson's 1990 comedy-drama, which is well constructed, with a deft balance of dry comedy, wisdom and pathos, and a sincere appreciation of the challenging role of the caregiver. Its rich underlay of compassion speaks of the author's direct experiences - of living with elderly, ailing relatives, and of devastating suffering and fortifying love during the AIDS epidemic, when the play was written. (McPherson died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, aged 33, nine months after his partner.) But yesterday's clear-eyed reflection on life's blessings and blights can be today's saggy, sentimental Lifetime movie manqué in the wrong hands. And director Anne Kauffman's are definitely the wrong hands.
I particularly marveled at the way Taylor processed any bad news that comes Bessie's way. She segues briskly from shock to resilience, with the speed and force of a Gulf Coast storm, the way some people-lucky people-can do when faced with ill circumstances that are beyond their control. It's easy, as well, to empathize with Garofalo's chain-smoking Lee (the smoking, by the way, is the only indication "Marvin's Room" is set some years ago). Hank's adolescent meltdowns have already pushed Lee to the brink, even before Bessie's diagnosis spurred this undesired trip from Ohio to Florida.
A cute sense of humor pops up throughout the play, such as when Ruth dresses up for a special episode of her favorite television soap opera, Lee shamelessly dumps a tray of candy into her purse while touring a nursing home and Bessie is rescued at Disney World by a costumed cartoon character. Staging the play is deceptively difficult, as its slow pace and confessional mini-monologues can easily become tedious, and that is often the case with this production (directed by Anne Kauffman, who has extensive Off-Broadway credits). Laura Jellinek's misconceived set design is overly expansive (with the actors frequently far away from each other) and elaborate (requiring the assistance of visible stagehands) and yet still incomplete (with a backyard scene performed around the kitchen).
With the whole of theater history on the shelf, what makes a producer reach for a particular show to re-stage? Beyond a don't-miss pairing of a classic role and a magnetic star (see: Hello, Dolly and Bette Midler), it helps for a revival to resonate - topically, emotionally - with present-day audiences. That's a harder task for a returning show in which the story is contemporaneous with its original premiere (Dolly, for instance, never ages because, even in 1964, it swept audiences to the turn of the century). Unfortunately, this first Broadway production of Marvin's Room never quite justifies its trip back to the early '90s. While not a conspicuous period piece, it resists updating, and yet lacks the emotional power and resonance to move us from its long-ago vantage.
Look closely and you'll see that Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo share a faint resemblance. For their roles as estranged sisters in "Marvin's Room," that comes in handy. The Broadway revival of Scott McPherson's 1990 play needs that sort of help. While the acting is fine, the comedic elements of the story about the intertwining of life and death sometimes feel forced. That includes early scenes with a ridiculous doctor. Anne Kauffman's staging for the Roundabout, moreover, doesn't always maximize the material. The pacing is Valium-induced sluggish and the out-of-scale physical production is ill-suited to the intimate goings-on.
It's a good play. Honestly, it's a good play. No, I really mean it. This mantra, or something like it, is necessary to keep your faith in "Marvin's Room," the mordantly funny play about life and love and death that writer Scott McPherson lived to see premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theater in 1990, two years before he died of AIDS at the age of 33. Despite decent performances, this lugubrious Broadway revival directed by Anne Kauffman for the Roundabout does his dark comedy no favors.