It’s a good play. Honestly, it’s a good play. No, I really mean it. This mantra, or something like it, is necessary to keep your faith in “Marvin’s Room,” the mordantly funny play about life and love and death that writer Scott McPherson lived to see premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1990, two years before he died of AIDS at the age of 33. Despite decent performances, this lugubrious Broadway revival directed by Anne Kauffman for the Roundabout does his dark comedy no favors.
McPherson’s bizarre comic sensibility positions him somewhere between Beth Henley and Joe Orton. That offbeat humor gives the play its screwball charm, but makes it tricky to navigate and treacherous to stage, even with star talent like Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo as long-estranged sisters reunited by sickness and impending death.
Taylor plays the saintly sister, Bessie, who lives in Florida where she is single-handedly caring for their dying father, Marvin (Carman Lacivita), and his sister, Ruth (the wonderful Celia Weston), who is also ailing and homebound. In a morbidly funny opening scene, Bessie, who thinks she’s suffering from a mild vitamin deficiency, receives a deadly diagnosis of leukemia from Dr. Wally, a cordial quack in Triney Sandoval’s cheery performance.
“Well, June,” he says to Bessie, whose name he can’t seem to remember, “If it seems like a lot of blood, that’s because it is. So if you’re feeling anxious because we’re drawing a lot of blood, you should.”
But does that casual death sentence cramp Bessie’s style? Not a bit of it. Despite her own illness, Bessie is a selfless caregiver, devoted to family members who take her goodness for granted. Garofalo is delightfully droll as Bessie’s estranged sister, Lee, who ambles in from Ohio with her two sons — not to help with the caregiving, just to add to Bessie’s burdens.
Two appealing young actors bring out the best qualities in these ill-assorted brothers. Young Charlie is a terrific kid in Luca Padovan’s unselfconscious performance, sweet enough to apply his aunt’s eye makeup for her, and smart enough not to make a big deal out of it. At 18, Hank is older and more complicated, and Jack DiFalco cunningly deadpans his way through the tricky psychology of a young man with, um, problems.
“I’m really sorry I burnt the house down,” says Hank, who has a day pass from the loony bin and is trying hard to make a good impression on his aunt. “If the fire hadn’t spread up the street, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
Lee and the boys have answered Bessie’s summons to determine whether any of them might be compatible for a bone marrow transplant that would save her life. As motivations for a family reunion go, that’s more dramatic than some conventional get-together to observe a holiday or anniversary.
But the direction helming undermines the dynamics of this emotionally fraught reunion. The lack of energy is not only deadly for comedy, but also disastrous for performers forced to hold their poses while waiting for sluggish set changes and leisurely light cues.
At its heart, this is an intimate play full of quiet moments that cry out for privacy — or at least a little directorial sensitivity. Exposing its modest scenes on the massive stage of the American Airlines Theater is like tossing a puppy into the ocean and expecting it to swim for its life.