Is there ever a time when heartbreak and loss go out of “style”? Marvin’s Room opened over Christmas in 1991 at Playwrights Horizons in New York (it was originally produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago), no one’s idea of a holiday show. The title character is a shadowy image, bedridden behind an upstage wall, unseen but heard through occasional moans of pain and indecipherable gibberish. Marvin is cared for by his daughter Bessie. They share the home with his sister Ruth, whose chronic pain has of late been tamed by electrodes planted in her brain. When Bessie’s estranged sister Lee shows up with her two sons, they enter a world suffused, disconcertingly, with love and pain so interwoven it’s hard to discern the boundary between them.
It’s a comedy, of course, and a very funny one. It might make you think of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, which preceded it, or as a prescient groundbreaker for Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, which came a year later. It was a time when the world felt like a black comedy unraveling before us. A time not unlike today.
The playwright, Scott McPherson, recently had been diagnosed with AIDS when Marvin’s Room opened in New York, when that diagnosis was all but certainly a death sentence, and a horrible one at that. McPherson was gone within a year, one of innumerable talents lost in a generation drawn abruptly and cruelly short by the disease. But Marvin’s Room, exquisitely human and tenderly compassionate, doused with anarchic humor, lives, vibrant as ever, in Anne Kauffman’s wonderful revival for the Roundabout Theatre Company, giving the play its overdue Broadway debut at the American Airlines Theatre.
Bessie (evanescent Lili Taylor; Mystic Pizza, The X-Files), after years of caring for Marvin and Ruth, has been diagnosed with leukemia. In need of a match for a bone marrow transplant, she summons Lee (sparky Janeane Garofalo; Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City), who split long ago and is raising two sons by herself while finishing cosmetology school. They’re as uncomprehending of one another as strangers, Bessie the picture of beneficence, Lee tense, skeptical, uptight and wary.
Lee’s troubled older son Hank (a sensational Jack DiFalco) has come reluctantly, sprung from the mental hospital to which he was remanded after burning down the family home. Sullen and closed, Hank hasn’t decided whether he’ll allow himself to be tested for the match, not so sure he wants to make any sacrifice for the aunt he’s never met. It’s to the
credit of everyone involved – these committed actors, the sensitive director and most of all McPherson – that the connections slow to take hold are soldered like emotional strands that throw off sparks as they finally fuse. Even the vaguely batty Ruth – touchingly played by Celia Weston without an ounce of condescension – addicted to soap operas as she is to the little box that gives her a charge of relief (while setting off the automatic garage door at the same time) plays a key role. McPherson’s roar of valedictory comes in Bessie’s quiet remonstrance to Lee near the end, that her greatest fortune in life is not to have been loved but to have loved, fully and completely.
What begins as a group portrait in which each character is out of focus through a different lens eventually, if painfully, becomes crystal clear. Which isn’t to be mistaken for a happy ending. For all Marvin’s Room‘s humor and pathos, happy endings are not in the cards here.
AT THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE IN BROOKLYN, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is given a rough reading in Simon Godwin’s haphazard, comme ci, comme ça production that begins with a below-stage tour of Mistress Overdone’s brothel (is there anything more tiresome than actorish tableaux of S&M scenes? Probably, but none comes to mind). It’s indicative of how hard it can be to find the right tone for this play, which pogo-sticks from lowbrow gags for the groundlings to highbrow verbal duels for the cognoscenti.
At the opening, Godwin has the Duke of Vienna (Jonathan Cake, The Affair) shooting up after a night of debauchery, leading him to temporarily abdicate so that his straight-arrow deputy, Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Fool) can restore law and order. Angelo’s first act is to sentence Claudio (Leland Fowler) to death for knocking up his fiancée.
Claudio engages his almost-a-nun sister Isabella (Cara Ricketts, Orphan Black) to prevail upon Angelo for mercy. Angelo, smitten, says he’ll free Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s virginity, to which her response, famously, is “More than our brother is our chastity.”
Of course, if that were Isabella’s only response, there wouldn’t be much of a play, and what pleasures there are in this production emerge from the excellent verbal thrusts and parries between Angelo and Isabella that ensue in Ryan’s and Ricketts’ assured, low-temperature performances. But this is still that play in which everyone ends up married and nobody wins.