Review: ‘Marvin’s Room’ at Roundabout Theatre Company

Scott McPherson wrote Marvin’s Room, a play about illness, family ties, and death when he was just a lad of 30. As a gay man, he was of course aware of the AIDS epidemic that had been ravaging the gay community since the early 1980s; but he was not one of its victims when he wrote the play. Death was on his mind however, and he chose to devote himself to this chronicle of the side effects of the death of the father/grandfather in an average American family in which one sibling (Bess) has chosen to devote her life to the care of that father (Marvin) who has been in need of care ever since he suffered a stroke years ago.

Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor in Marvin’s Room. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Marvin has been housebound and bedridden, and Bess has sacrificed any chance of a life for herself, other than the one she is living. In addition to her devotion to her father, she has inherited her Aunt Ruth, a simple woman with severe back problems, who has meant to be helpful, but who in fact spends most of her time committed to soap operas that require her daily attention. When Bess discovers that she is herself ill with leukemia, she calls on her estranged sister Lee, whom she hasn’t seen in 18 years, for Lee is a divorced single mother raising two sons, Hank and Charlie.

This family richly supplies material for a soap opera of its own; with a less gifted writer creating them for us, a sitcom might have emerged if one were to treat aging, illness, infirmity, responsibility, and even death comically. But Mr. McPherson dug deeper and he not only knew his characters well, he’s captured them in all their tawdriness and their shining humanity, and by evening’s end I found myself identifying with them all, even though they didn’t sprout from my own roots. They are so specifically drawn, they become universal.

Mr. McPherson’s career showed great promise. His first full length play, Till The Fat Lady Sings, won a Joseph Jefferson citation for Best New Work. Marvin’s Room and its first production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago led to off-Broadway and many regional productions in the years ahead. Unfortunately, Mr. McPherson fell victim to AIDS and after completing the screen adaptation of his play, he died in 1992. The Roundabout Theatre has generously given us a new production of Marvin’s Room, and it’s well worth
a visit.

Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in Marvin’s Room. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Anne Kauffman has staged it smoothly, and the eight actors are each stunningly on target. For some reason I can’t fathom, this very intimate glimpse at the interactions of eight very human beings is being played in the much-too-large American Airlines Theatre (740 seats) and as a result much of its impact is diminished. The energy level made me feel I was watching a film being shot, with me about 50 feet behind the camera.

Mr. McPherson’s play is loosely constructed from many short scenes which move from home to hospital to street to Disneyland, which requires turntables and occasional stagehands running about, but his insight into his characters is on display throughout. For contrast, he’s created Bess’ physician, Dr. Wally, one character whose energy projected beyond the second row, and for that I offer thanks to Triney Sandoval, who played him, even though Dr. Wally is the sort who has the bedside manner of a bad comic. He’s funny, but scary.

Lili Taylor’s “Bess”, Janeane Garofolo’s ” Sister Lee”, Celia Weston’s “Aunt Ruth”, brought these three members of the family to vivid life. Jack DiFalco as Lee’s disturbed son “Hank”, and Triney Sandoval as “Dr. Wally” fill other principal roles well. Carman Lacivita as the Doctor’s brother “Bob” joins Luca Padovan and Nedra McClyde in energetic support to bring us a fistful of colorfully named actors creating highly human characters. Marvin’s Room will be a rewarding place to be this summer.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Marvin’s Room plays through August 27, 2017 at Roundabout Theatre Company performing at  the American Airlines Theatre – 227 West 42nd Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.

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