Marvin’s Room: Across the Great (but too vast) Divide
Marvin’s Room starts off with a nervous Bessie, played by the well-known actress, Lily Taylor fidgeting in a small doctor’s office confined in a rectangle space up close to the edge of the stage. She seems confined and uncomfortable, not so much because of the space she is placed, but the situation she finds herself. She needs to give blood for a few precautionary tests to a sweet but befuddled Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval). Although both seem equally not ready or steady enough for the task ahead, Taylor exudes just the right amount of sincere anxiety to set the stage for what is to come in this classic dark comedy from writer Scott McPherson. Both are a bit ill at ease about the needle, in the same manner that this production of Marvin’s Room is uncomfortably placed on that big stage in the American Airline Theater. The actors have it together, delivering their roles with truth and sincerity, but the staging is on less solid ground then what we normally expect from the likes of Roundabout.
Foolishly staged using the expansiveness of that great stage, Marvin’s Room feels like nothing it wants to be. It is the complete opposite of intimate, as one would want from such a simple and elegant comedy about family and disease. It never feels like anyone’s home, nor any real doctor’s office. It’s either too tight or too vast. It never feels like the backyard (I actually thought they were pretending to be in the garage until the dialogue told me I was wrong), nor does it feel anything remotely like Disneyland. With a large glass brick wall blocking the large space off from being anything but what it is, the revolve isn’t capable to change the scene effectively. It just spins those two chairs around, keeping them insight even for scenes that they don’t make sense or have no use. Set designer, Laura Jellinek has done the play and it’s players no favors here, making them tramp across this wide empty space from the kitchen, that feels the most intimate of all the spaces in this production, to the door of Marvin’s room, in a house that doesn’t feel like a home. It feels like a journey across a desert rather than a living room, or an office, or a therapy room. The press photos by Joan Marcus are almost proof positive that the beauty of this piece lies in the close-up, not in the wide frame. This is a play about family and interpersonal dynamics, and sadly, the staging is void of all intimacy and familiarity.
Lily Taylor (MCC’s Dead Eye Boy) and Janeane Garofalo (the film: The Truth About Cats and Dogs) are the stars that have to work hard to overcome the obstacle that they are placed within. They inhabit two estranged sisters brought together by disease, even when it was Marvin’s illness that caused one of them to flee so many years ago. Taylor’s Bessie is quiet and thoughtful, constantly thinking of others, even in her own moment of crisis. She is the one who stayed behind, giving up her adult life for the sake of her father and her aunt’s care. Although Marvin himself is left unseen throughout this play, the always amazing Celia Weston sparkles as the crippled but kind Aunt Ruth. Every little squeal and sigh register in a way that so many other moments do not.
Taylor plays Bessie, the care giver in a straight forward approach with a gentle voice and calm demeanor, but also as no angel with moments of subtle viciousness slyly being lobbed at her sister, Lee. The history is heavy between the two, and although we are never given the big explosion, we are given an authentic conflict, etched in pain and jealousy. Garofalo is born to play this overwhelmed wisecracking sister, who overcomes here aversion to her familial dynamics and returns to Florida to see if she is a bone marrow match for her sister’s battle with Leukemia. She’s awkward and abrasive, especially in regards to her attempts to mother her two sons. These interactions are almost painful to watch, when it isn’t funny. The older and more troubled son, Hank, played in a brooding brilliance by Jack DiFalco (YEN) brings the pain and anguish to the piece, especially in the touching way Bessie and him slowly battle their way into a fairly trusting truce. Sidelined and watching is the sweet Charlie, played solidly by Luca Padovan (School of Rock). They all come together well, especially with the assist from Weston and Taylor. The simpleness of their phrasing illuminates the piece, and DiFalco brings it home in the end. I almost cried. Almost.
Directed well, although not inspiringly, by Anne Kaufman (A Life, Marjorie Prime), she somehow finds traces of intimacy on the acres of open space. This beautiful and funny play was based upon McPherson’s experiences of cared for his partner, cartoonist and activist Daniel Sotomayor, who died from AIDS. The trials of a caregiver who is also in need of caregiving himself is a sad but real story the echoes through the AIDS epidemic. Here in Marvin’s Room we are witness to the complexities that come with that scenario. McPherson himself died in 1992 of AIDS at age 33 and this sweet caring story is one of the many gifts he left behind. The design, it seems, is not a gift given to the actors or the production, it is more the culprit and a vast one. Luckily for us, the cast is solid enough to span that wide horizon and still, someone, draw us in.