When disease attacks our bodies, we become Blanche DuBois: dependent on the kindness of strangers. We start to lean on doctors, nurses, and social workers, people we can’t exactly call friends, but who help ease our pain and worry. Sometimes the nominal stranger can even be a blood relation, as in Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, a gently wrenching, heart-wise story about dignity in the face of death and the ability of wounded families to heal. The 1990 comedy-drama, turned into a movie in 1996 (starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and a young Leonardo DiCaprio), blossoms and glows under the steady, surgical hand of Anne Kauffman in a long-overdue Broadway debut for both play and director.
Zany, morbid, and brimful of compassion, Marvin’s Room is the defining work of a playwright who died of complications from AIDS at the age of 33. McPherson wasn’t writing about the disease that was killing his friends, his lover, and eventually himself, but something else as primal and relevant: how to rise above the false choice between reckless selfishness and helping others. The action is mostly set in Florida, that place where people go to die. For nearly twenty years, Bessie (Lili Taylor) has tended to her offstage father, Marvin, a cancer survivor rendered bedbound and babbling from a series of strokes. “He’s doing it real slow so I don’t miss anything,” Bessie jokingly tells her doctor without a jot of bitterness. She lives with Marvin’s sister, Ruth (Celia Weston), herself debilitated with back pain, relieved only by shocks via remote-control electrodes in her skull. (In one of McPherson’s goofier inventions, each jolt of electricity causes the automatic garage door to open.) When the play begins, Bessie is having blood drawn by the blunderingly jovial Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval, in a nicely calibrated comic performance) to discover the cause of her fatigue and bruising. Bessie had been hoping her symptoms were caused by vitamin deficiency, but a couple of scenes later, she’s diagnosed with leukemia, a situation she sees mostly as an impediment to caring for her father and aunt.
Enter Lee (Janeane Garofalo), Bessie’s long-estranged sister and someone dealing with her own problems, albeit with much less grace. Divorced and living in a church basement thanks to the charity of nuns, Lee has two sons with issues: the teenage Hank (Jack DiFalco), who recently burned down the family house, and Charlie (Luca Padovan), whose grades are failing as a result of his compulsive, extracurricular book-reading. Lee and the boys travel to Florida to see if any of them test positive for a bone marrow transplant that could save Bessie’s life.
Staged too broad or too earnestly, McPherson’s delicate tone would wobble in the direction of either quirk-for-quirk’s-sake or weepie manipulation. But Kauffman, for years the shrewd midwife of weird and dark work by Adam Bock, Jordan Harrison, Jenny Schwartz, and others, keeps the needle flickering in the ambiguous middle. Hank and Charlie aren’t heartless kids devoid of empathy; they’re just young and can’t conceive of death. Yes, Lee abandoned her dying father, but was she sparing him and Bessie her destructive tendencies? You keep waiting for the dark side of Bessie’s saintliness to emerge, but McPherson hits you with an admission of such simplicity and truth, it draws honest tears: “I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much,” Bessie tells Lee. “I am so lucky to have loved so much. I am so lucky.” This from a cancer patient who has sacrificed her life for a parent whose death would set her free.
That incontinent, gurgling body — and the room that gives the play its name — is never shown, a choice by the playwright that gives the piece a gathering sense of mystery and wonder. What is Marvin’s room? The thing we fear most: a place of terminal pain and misery, a prison. Yet it’s also the site for countless acts of decency and love. Designer Laura Jellinek hides Marvin’s body behind squares of translucent privacy glass, in a spinning, modular set that smartly conflates suburban blandness with institutional sterility. When you are dealing with a seriously ill loved one, spaces bleed into one another: doctor’s office, retirement home, living room.
With her slightly detuned voice and banked intensity, Taylor can play the spectrum, from sheltered innocents to deluded lunatics. Her Bessie is a consummate portrait of generosity and good humor in the face of decay and fully present to the pain and joy of her situation, but never demanding pity. Garofalo has the stand-up comedian’s instinct to guard herself and keep the audience at arm’s length, a useful tool in the first part of Lee’s journey from awkward mom and sarcastic narcissist to empathetic sister. But as the play proceeds, you wish Garofalo could show the process of Lee’s softening more actively. As Hank, the teen survivor of abuse he can barely remember, DiFalco expertly reveals the damage underneath a young man’s studied callousness and cool. And Weston has a disarming, gentle touch with the dotty, doddering auntie.
A brother to Harry Kondoleon’s semi-absurdist comedies and precursor to David Lindsay-Abaire’s hectic black farces, Marvin’s Room could be read as a non-AIDS AIDS play with an inclusive message of love for anyone who has cared for a dying lover or relative. In its time, it implicitly mapped the overlapping ground between lives savaged by HIV and those destroyed by other maladies. It still resonates: This Broadway version takes place against the grotesque backdrop of a desperate federal bid to convert affordable healthcare for 22 million Americans into a tax cut for the wealthy. What’s the utter opposite of a caregiver like Bessie, who gains a world of love for her patience and selfless devotion? It’s spitting and gibbering in dark Washington backrooms.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Through August 27