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Theatre in Review: Marvin's Room (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Janeane Garofalo, Lili Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Well into the second act of Marvin's Room, the heroine, Bessie -- who has spent the bulk of her adult life caring for others -- admits to her long-estranged sister, Lee, that she once enjoyed a romantic relationship with a carnival worker named Clarence. He was something of a clown, she notes, recalling the picnic, held during a cold spell, when he alone decided to take a dip in the nearby river. The assembled guests watched him bob up and down, making funny faces as he emerged from the water. But then he went under -- and didn't resurface. As it happened, "laughter and choking looked the same on Clarence," Bessie says.

This speech is typical of a piece in which humor is most often a signal of distress; even so, this is a play that keeps its head about it, no matter what. After a couple of weeks filled with overwrought, overheated entertainments, the sanity and understatement of Marvin's Room feels like a cool breeze blowing across Broadway. These may seem like strange virtues in a play in which most of the characters are struggling with chronic pain, grave illness, or mental problems. But sometimes a sense of proportion is the best asset: A work that could have succumbed to all sorts of excess miraculously never puts a foot wrong. Like an expertly thrown baseball pitch, it comes at you low and outside, landing quietly, yet with devastating force.

In the twenty-six years since we last saw Scott McPherson's play, we have been inundated with dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of aggressively zany comedies about dysfunctional families, most of them employing the same formula: an act and a half of calculatedly outrageous gags followed by unearned tears and a round of hugs for one and all. Marvin's Room will have none of that: It exists, clear-eyed and without sentimentality, in a universe where the worst outcome is usually the likeliest and helping hands are often unreliable or inept. It begins, awkwardly, with a comic sketch set in a doctor's office, as a distracted, thoroughly self-involved practitioner tries to take a blood sample from an understandably nervous Bessie. There are easy bits about cockroaches, treacherous nurses, and unsanitary practices with needles, not to mention a running gag about his inability to remember her name. For all we know, the entire evening will consist of such sitcom-level gags. Then comes the first blow to our collective solar plexus: In all likelihood, Bessie has leukemia.

This news disrupts the already delicate balance of Bessie's family life: She lives with her father, the bedridden Marvin, whose many afflictions include a stroke, cancer, diabetes, partial blindness, and God only knows what else. (Bessie entertains him by bouncing light off her compact's mirror, a trick that soothes his anxiety attacks.) Also on hand is Ruth, Bessie's aunt, whose lifetime of chronic pain at long last has been relieved by an electronic anesthetizer -- too bad that every time she uses it, it makes the garage door go up. The search to find Bessie a genetically compatible bone marrow donor leads to Lee, whose life is one long trail of bad decisions: Divorced, broke, the survivor of a bad marriage and an unspecified number of even worse relationships, she hopes to turn things around with an imminent degree in cosmetology. Trailing behind Lee are her two sons, Charlie, who is flunking out of grade school despite (or, rather, because of) his incessant reading, and Hank, who is on leave from a psychiatric institution, where he was placed after burning down the family home. "If the fire hadn't spread up the street it wouldn't be such a big deal," he says, by way of defending himself.

As this little tribe pulls together -- warily, uncertainly -- around the seriously ailing Bessie, the news is rarely good. Still, McPherson finds a surprising amount of comedy, most of it honestly arrived at, tucked away in the corners and shadows of their often desperate situation. Ruth, a floating cloud of fecklessness in Celia Weston's perfectly timed performance, can't bring herself to tell Marvin that Bessie is in the hospital; she tries to pass off the visiting nurse as a hallucination, induced by his meds. "The only time it seems to bother him is when she carries him to the bath," she notes. "And I say, 'Oh, look, Marvin, you're flying'." Lee admonishes Bessie never to say "mental institution" when talking to Hank. "We call it the loony bin or the nuthouse to show we've got a sense of humor about it," she adds. Janeane Garofalo's Lee often appears to stand outside herself, her lips pressed together, icily noting her own failures as a mother; a simple transaction, like reaching for a handful of potato chips, breaks down into a power struggle with Hank (played by Jack DiFalco as a string of barbed wire, stretched to the breaking point); regrouping, she sweetly offers the chips to Charlie. The look on little Luca Padovan's face, as -- terrified of triggering another brawl -- he slips a single chip into his mouth is pricelessly funny.

Thanks to Anne Kauffman's assured direction, nothing is overstated and nobody presses for laughs. This is especially true of Lili Taylor as Bessie, the still center of this eccentric, pained universe. Taylor doesn't have the almost otherworldly radiance of Laura Esterman, who created the role, but she has a muted, practical decency, a stubborn refusal to give in to tragedy, if only because those around her need her so badly. She is thoroughly human, allowing herself a cry of disappointment when Ruth, addicted to a soap opera, forgets to give Marvin his pills, and buckling, ever so slightly, in the face of each new disappointing medical report. (Physically, she seems to fade before our eyes; the moment when she is caught without her wig, her own ravaged by chemotherapy, is a stunner.) But she is supremely delicate in reaching out to Hank, slipping around his hostile manner and nicely, but unflinchingly, calling out his habit of lying. And when, looking back on the years spent tending to Marvin and Ruth, she confides to Lee, "I am so lucky to have loved so much," you don't doubt her for a second. It's not easy to play a kind of saint, but Taylor captures Bessie's extraordinary goodness without surrendering her broken humanity.

The rest of the cast is solid, especially Triney Sandoval as Bessie's distracted, evasive doctor and Nedra McClyde as both a poker-faced psychiatrist assigned to Hank's case and as a rest home administrator who cheerfully explains how Bessie should spend herself into poverty in order to qualify for financial aid for Marvin's care. The action, which ranges over several Florida locations, unfolds in an environment, designed by Laura Jellinek, defined by brick glass and walls of patterned cement blocks; it works well enough, but one element, the top part of an amusement park ride seen during a family trip to Disney World, looks like something operated by Bessie's carny boyfriend, not a slick theme park attraction. Japhy Weideman provides floods of sunlight in addition to cool night washes and touches of pastel colors. Jessica Pabst's costumes are true to the Sunshine State location and early '90s time frame; the aggressively spangled sweater that Ruth wears to celebrate a wedding held on her favorite soap opera is especially amusing. Leah J. Loukas' hair and wig designs go a long way toward helping us grasp the progression of Bessie's illness. Daniel Kluger's incidental music consists of nervous, melancholy strings; his many effects include whippoorwills, crickets, television broadcasts, and that garage door in motion.

Marvin's Room ends with little hope on offer, but with everyone, touched by Bessie, doing their best to function as a unit. "Nothing happens that God doesn't have a reason for," says Ruth at one point -- an assertion that proves increasingly difficult to accept as the calamities pile up. Still, this is the rare play about grace as expressed under pressure and daily life as a kind of devotional. The W. H. Auden who wrote "We must love one another or die" would feel right at home here.-- David Barbour

(10 July 2017)

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