Bessie is a woman with a good heart and she is warmly played by Lili Taylor in the revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company of the late playwright Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room.” Bessie has been devotedly caring for her long-ill, stroke-victim father, whom we never see as he lies in a room at home making only occasionally heard sounds. Bessie is also caring for her colorfully vocal but physically deteriorating aunt Ruth, portrayed with amusing complaints by Celia Weston. In short, Bessie is a very good soul.
But, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. At the office of quirky doctor Wally, played with ditsy absent-mindedness by Triney Sandoval, Bessie is diagnosed with the suspicion of leukemia, later confirmed. Unless the condition can be reversed, she is doomed, just as the playwright was doomed to die of complications from AIDS at the age of 33 in 1992, not long after his play was originally staged and after the loss of his partner in the AIDS epidemic. The play is set in Florida in the early 1990s.
Perhaps a bone marrow transplant could help Bessie, and that sets off the plot. Bessie’s sister Lee (Janeane Garofalo), whom she has not seen for years and who lives in Ohio, might be a candidate, and the same goes for Lee’s two sons. The older one, Hank (Jack DiFalco), we learn, is a disturbed 17-year-old who has been treated in a facility for his mental problems. His brother is Charlie (Luca Padovan), a more normal kid. Hank behaves with eruptions of hostility and resistance to his mother’s strict authority. The family arrives at Bessie’s home for scheduled doctor’s appointments to see if there is a match that can enable a medical procedure.
The play emerges as a hybrid of comedy and emotion, reflected in the dialogue and the conversations that occur, as well as in the attitudes of the various characters. A major achievement is the airing of family issues between Bessie and Lee, and the closeness that develops under the pressure of the situation. Lee has kept at a distance through the years and their lives evolved differently. Her gestures toward Bessie are minimal but well-meant.
What are we to make of “Marvin’s Room?” It is part family drama but in the overall picture is also a demonstration of how illness can affect anybody, and how one can be stricken no matter how undeserving of tragedy. The play also demonstrates the need for bonding. Anne Kaufman has directed this production with sensitivity to what must be illuminated in the characterizations and in the balance between the writer’s sense of humor and seriousness.
Laura Jellinek has designed an enormous, glossy and glassy set that, while it works in her concept, is at odds with what I believe the play needs. The writing and acting call for intimacy, which often gets lost against the gigantic background of the set, within which there must be movement into individual scene set-ups. Important conversations sometimes take place at the corners of the stage, which makes audience members at opposite sides need to strain to hear, especially when a character’s back is turned toward them. It would be helpful if there were a more intimate set in tune with the intimacy of the play.
Even within the framework of this staging, the performances combine to bring the play to life and keep us focused, sometimes even amusingly, on their situations, conflicts and the overall view of people struggling in the face of what life has dealt them. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-718-1300. Reviewed July 8, 2017.