When it opened Off Broadway in 1991, Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room was viewed through the lens of the Aids crisis – the disease would later take the playwright’s life.
Although not about Aids, the play’s focus on caregiving and hope in the face of illness spoke acutely to that moment. Twenty-six years on, without that context, the play treads well-worn family drama territory albeit with some laughs along the way. Under the direction of Anne Kauffman it’s given a fairly ho-hum Broadway debut.
For 20 years, Bessie (Lili Taylor) has been selflessly caring for her bedridden father and ailing, eccentric aunt (Celia Weston) in Florida. In Ohio, Bessie’s estranged sister Lee (Janeane Garofalo) is struggling to manage her life and sons, fire-starter Hank (Jack DiFalco) and bookworm Charlie (Luca Padovan). When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she hopes to find a bone marrow donor. Lee and her boys come to her aid to see if they are a match.
Kauffman avoids cloying sentimentality but she over-emphasises each character interaction with a ponderous pace. Even with the play’s conspicuous tender moments, there’s not real heft in the material to resonate. Taylor is delicate and pained, Weston properly ditzy, Garofalo too withdrawn. DiFalco is seething. Yet everyone is too still and the subtlety gets lost on a massive stage.
Although the scale of the action is small, Laura Jellinek’s set looms large with a towering floral-patterned cement wall dwarfing all else. A turntable moves between doctors’ offices and the family home but sometimes it’s unclear where we are – and many of the set-pieces scream when a whisper would do.