Marvin’s Room forces the audience to confront and reevaluate dying. Because dying is not dead. In 1990, when the play was written, tens of thousands of young men in the US were dying of AIDS. For hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, dying was becoming a new normal. Dying, as it turns out, is still living. Marvin’s room isn’t about AIDs, but does address what dying means, how it affects us, how seeing death on the horizon focuses us to focus on the important things and overlook the small shit. But the intervening 25 years since Marvin's Room was written have taught all Americans all that lesson, over and over. The show has lost the urgency of the new but not found an emotion to replace it.
In Marvin’s Room, two sisters come together in the face of a probable terminal diagnosis. Bessie (Lilli Taylor) and Lee (Janeane Garofalo) haven’t seen each other in at least eighteen years. Bessie moved to Florida to care for their father and aunt who were both dying. Lee stayed in Ohio, had two sons, at least one horrible marriage and a run of very bad luck. Because of a recent diagnosis, Lee and her sons travel down to Florida to be with the family.
|Jack DiFalco and Janeane Garofalo (photo Joan Marcus)
Bessie takes care of her father Marvin, a stroke victim 20 years ago – who remains unseen, but his occasional moans are heard from a room at the back of the stage, an ever-present reminder of death waiting just out of reach. She also takes care of her Aunt Ruth (Celia Weston) who was dying, but a cure was found; now Ruth isn’t confident on how to live. Lilli Taylor brings a simmering level of controlled frustration to the role. A child who was forced into a parental role at too young an age, Bessie lets out just enough annoyance so that her anger doesn’t explode. Lilli Taylor breaths a lot of expository in small moments.
Lee is an aging free-spirit with problems of her own. Her eldest son Hank (Jack DiFalco) is in an institution because he burnt down the family home, after a run in with Lee’s most recent partner. Lee and her other son are now living in a church basement.
Bessie is diagnosed with Leukemia, and Lee and the children travel down to Florida to be tested as bone marrow donors. Getting these various feuding family members together is easy, keeping them from fighting 24/7 is much harder.
|Celia Weston and Lilli Taylor (photo: Joan Marcus)
Lille Taylor and Janeane Garofalo are excellent as the two sisters. Both try to control their resentment towards each other with varying levels of success. Celia Weston is perfect in the smaller role of self-aware crazy aunt – she brings a nice level of realness to a role that could easily lapse into caricature. Jack DeFalco as the young Hank is terrific. Hank is on the cusp of adulthood, with no role models and an anger issue. And, although he isn’t sick, his mother has given up their relationship for dead.
There are some problems with Marvin’s Room. The pacing of the first half is awkward, made worse by the sets and staging. The sets are sparse, and spread widely across the American Airlines Theatre stage - which seems to have grown to airplane hanger dimensions. This means that the characters tend to hike to the next scene. This delay is exacerbated by the more solitary moments in the first half, and a stage where everything spins, twists or rotates. We seem to watch solitary figures hike uphill quite often. In the second half, more characters and less churning yields a much better paced show.
Anne Kaufman, a virtuoso director off-Broadway, gets very nice performances form the cast, but still seems to be learning to deal with the size of the Broadway theater (and The American Airlines Theater is a tough stage in the best of times). Marvin’s Room is good, but doesn’t quit live up to the expectations one has for such a famous show. Plus, I don’t get the Flamingo.
Marvin’s Room | Playwright: Scott McPherson | Director: Anne Kauffman | Cast: Janeane Garofalo, Lilli Taylor, Celia Weston, Jack DiFalco, Carman Lacivita, Nedra McClyde, Luca Padovan, Triney Sandoval | Website