Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, and Jack DiFalco in Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” directed by Anne Kaufman. | JOAN MARCUS
There is something wonderfully poignant about the revival of “Marvin’s Room” from Roundabout. Scott McPherson’s play about a family in crisis as a relative is slowly dying couldn’t escape allusions to AIDS in its original 1991 production. (McPherson himself died of AIDS in 1992, and his struggles with his illness were said to have informed the writing of the play.)
In 2017, the piece takes on broader implications with uncertainty about American health care reminding us we all teeter on the brink, at risk of being abandoned with no idea whether we can be rescued. This is also a play about relationships, family dynamics, and how fragile the structure of our lives can be.
The plot is very simple. Bessie is in Florida to care for her dying father. “He’s doing it slowly so I don’t miss anything,” she says. Bessie is also caring for her soap opera-addicted aunt, Ruth. It’s a challenge, but she manages until she is diagnosed with leukemia. Her estranged sister, Lee, and two nephews arrive to determine if one might be a bone marrow match for Bessie’s treatment.
A family in crisis in an intimate revival; a promising group of hopefuls are launched
Inevitably, old wounds are re-opened and power struggles ensue. Lee’s two sons, Charlie and Hank, are struggling, as well. Young Charlie is trying to be good all the time, and Hank has been sprung from a psychiatric hospital where he was sent after he burned down the house. “If it hadn’t spread up the street, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal,” he explains to Bessie.
Very little else happens. This is an intimate play about struggle and the inescapable bonds of family, replete with love, recrimination, awkwardness, and, in the end, a kind of healing.
The difficult family situations, particularly the conflict between Lee, who escaped and is working on her cosmetology degree, and Bessie, who stayed to be their dying father’s caregiver, are juxtaposed against more cartoonish characters — a well-meaning but bumbling doctor and a sales person from a nursing home. What makes these characters work is that their idiotic excesses nicely reflect how a family in crisis may view all the buzzing, well-meaning, but not particularly helpful people around them. Under Anne Kaufman’s sensitive direction, this disconnect isolates the family in their problems and focuses the production on the central relationships.
The production’s one problem is that the play’s intimacy is almost swallowed up in the American Airlines Theatre. Fortunately, Kaufman’s direction revels in the small, human moments that happen between the lines, creating nice counterpoint to the often hilarious but mordant comedy that exists side-by-side with the darker storyline.
The play’s power comes through in the performances of an excellent cast, who balance the naturalism with the more outlandish events. Lili Taylor as Bessie gives a subtle and well-developed performance that quietly hits the myriad tones of a woman whose world is shaken as she confronts her own mortality. Janeane Garofalo is wonderful as Lee in an understated performance rich in the subtext of a conflicted, resentful daughter who chose to leave but struggles with finding a way back. Taylor and Garofalo play very well off each other, as hilarious memories reveal a connection that really can’t be broken. Celia Weston is delightful as Aunt Ruth, and Luca Padovan is solid as Lee’s younger son Charlie. Jack DiFalco is especially strong as Hank, a character written as a bit of a literary device — the story’s moral center. DiFalco makes Hank completely believable as a teenager unsure of himself and often uncomfortable in his own skin.
In families, there is often as much in what is unsaid as in what is said, and what does rise to the surface may often seem foreign, even inappropriate to anyone on the outside. Capturing all that as powerfully and effortlessly as this production does is no small accomplishment. “Marvin’s Room” finds the absurdity, incongruity, and messiness of one family’s life, and in its simplicity and honesty it reminds us of how tenuous and unpredictable life can be. The result is a rocky but deeply moving lyricism.
Nearly 65 years ago, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein, in “Wonderful Town,” wrote about how difficult it is for creative people to succeed in New York.
Forty years ago, John Kander and Fred Ebb promised that if you make it in New York, then the world is yours, but they stopped short of saying how.
And 11 years ago, Scott Siegel launched “Broadway Rising Stars,” an annual concert that has set dozens of newly fledged musical comedy performers on the road from their undergraduate theater programs to Broadway, the West End, national tours, and so much more. For these performers, this opportunity is a dream come true, and for audiences it’s a reminder of just how much talent there is here and that, as Comden and Green wrote, “A million kids every day… come to New York with stars in their eyes.”
Siegel’s latest crop of 21 hopefuls took the stage at Town Hall on July 10, and, to a person, knocked it out of the park, creating a wonderfully rich and delightful evening. Siegel has an uncanny knack for matching singers to songs, and under the direction of Scott Coulter it was easy to forget that these were people in their early 20s. They all came off as seasoned pros, though perhaps that should not surprise since many of them have been performing since they were kids.
While all of these performers should work often, there were, as always, standouts. Annette Berning singing “You There in the Back Row” had the purity of tone and sophistication of a classic ingénue. Willie Demyan, singing the Craig Carnelia song “Flight,” exhibited depth, maturity, and exceptional technique. Anthony Massa, singing “If I Can’t Love Her” from “Beauty and the Beast,” blew the audience away with his astonishing baritone, and Mia Gerachis gave a thrilling rendition of “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.” She injected real feeling into what I’ve long considered a tired torch song.
Siegel didn’t shortchange the comedic elements, either. Andy Kear stopped the show with an award-worthy performance of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls.” Ryan McConville was infectious and gleeful in his song-and-dance take on “Purpose” from “Avenue Q,” and Matt Ross was hilarious in the Alan Mencken number “Pink Fish.”
After all of these wonderful performances, the evening ended with the company singing “You Will Be Found” from “Dear Evan Hansen.” For this stellar young cast, that’s already happened.
MARVIN’S ROOM | American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. | Tue.-Sat at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $47-$147 at roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission
[Editor's note: In the original posting of this article, “Flight” was incorrectly identified as a song from “Dear Evan Hansen.”]