Total Rating: 
June 8, 2017
June 29, 2017
August 27, 2017
New York
New York
Roundabout Theater Company
Theater Type: 
American Airlines Theater
Theater Address: 
227 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 15 min
Scott McPherson
Anne Kauffman

Bessie is a saint. As played by Lili Taylor in Marvin’s Room, she’s also warm, optimist, and altogether lovely. So why is she so annoying? Maybe our sensibilities have changed, but it’s hard to identify with this woman who has sacrificed her life to take care of her father, who’s been dying slowly for the last twenty years. He’s the Marvin of the title, and while we hear him moaning throughout, we never see him. The other obvious question is when Bessie needs a bone marrow transplant, why does no one suggest Marvin? Her life hangs in the balance, and even her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), returns to Florida to do all she can to prevent Bessie dying of leukemia. She even brings with her Hank (Jack DiFalco), her delinquent son who burned down the house and is now in a “looney bin,” and young Charlie, (Luca Padovan), whose only eccentricity is a desire to read, whenever and wherever possible. They have been lured with the promise of going to Disneyworld.

Even Ruth (Celia Weston), the ditzy aunt with the mysterious back ailment, is being tested for compatibility. Ruth is virtually pain-free now, after years of agony. Her electric device opens the garage door, an amusing gag in a grim situation. When Bessie asks Ruth to give Marvin his medication, which seems to need administrating around the clock, Ruth is befuddled; she’s forgotten. Bessie reacts with the mildest of irritation. It should be noted at this point that Lili Taylor is a master at something many actors find daunting. She’s able to handle props (groceries) and say lines at the same time, seamlessly. Ruth grows truly panicked when she goes to Bessie’s room and finds her absent. What will happen to her when her niece dies?

Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval) is a caricature of the bumbling, inept doctor many of us have experienced. He’s not the most sanitary, or the most talented, but he is caring and concerned. There are real moments of levity involving his brother, whom he has hired as an assistant. Lee has also had to deal with a stylish psychiatrist Dr. Charlotte. In an uncomfortable moment, Lee goes to visit Hank in the asylum. She chains smokes, and takes no responsibility for her poor life choices, which have left her all but destitute. Hank has tremendous resentment, and no desire to travel anywhere with his mother.

Predictably, all does not go smoothly when this deeply dysfunctional family gets together. The ending is enigmatic. Are we supposed to believe that the unbalanced Hank will now care for Marvin and Ruth? Or is he just claiming his place in the chaotic situation?

Some time ago, I listened to an elderly relative talk about his wife’s long fatal illness. He proudly boasted that he’d convinced his son to care for his dying mother, including dealing with her most personal needs. “Who better than you?” he’d asked. I felt shocked at the notion and embarrassed for the son, who’d been guilted into a nightmarish task. Bessie obviously feels that her life has been worthwhile, because of “not the love I’ve received, but the love I’ve been able to give.” A noble sentiment, and Taylor is such a fine actress, she really sells it. But this inevitably brings into question the very nature of love, sacrifice, and what constitutes making the most of our limited time on this planet.

This play is touted for its level of comedy, but the humor is very dark indeed. That we know that both the author and his partner were dead of AIDS within three years can’t help but color the way we experience Marvin’s Room. Fortunately, the superb cast makes this production work. If only families could be as fine an ensemble and work so well together.

Janeane Garofalo (Lee), Lili Taylor (Bessie), Celia Weston (Ruth), Jack DiFalco (Hank), Carman Lacivita (Bob/Marvin), Nedra McClyde (Dr. Charlotte), Luca Padovan (Charlie), Triney Sandoval (Dr. Wally)
Set: Laura Jellinek. Costumes: Jessica Pabst. Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Michall Jeffers
Date Reviewed: 
July 2017