With the whole of theater history on the shelf, what makes a producer reach for a particular show to re-stage? Beyond a don’t-miss pairing of a classic role and a magnetic star (see: Hello, Dolly and Bette Midler), it helps for a revival to resonate — topically, emotionally — with present-day audiences. That’s a harder task for a returning show in which the story is contemporaneous with its original premiere (Dolly, for instance, never ages because, even in 1964, it swept audiences to the turn of the century). Unfortunately, this first Broadway production of Marvin’s Room never quite justifies its trip back to the early ’90s. While not a conspicuous period piece, it resists updating, and yet lacks the emotional power and resonance to move us from its long-ago vantage.
When Scott McPherson’s comic-drama opened Off-Broadway in 1991, its subject — the uneasy coming together of two estranged sisters — felt enduring. And while the reunion at its heart hinges on the then-new protocol of treating leukemia with bone-marrow from a close relative, its themes of familial love and obligation have, for the most part, aged well. So why does the show feel so out of sync now?
It may be, in part, because the author’s own story was tragically very much of the era in which Marvin’s Room debuted. “I am 31 and my lover has AIDS,” McPherson wrote in the program for the original production. ”Our friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for one another.”
Marvin’s Room was McPherson’s third and final work; he died in 1992 at age 33. The script never mentions AIDS but early ‘90s audiences would have easily contextualized his depiction of too-young caretakers becoming the cared-for. The show earned several posthumous awards, and a screenplay adaptation McPherson left behind arrived in movie theaters in 1996 with Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and a teenaged Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new revival stars the engaging Lili Taylor as Bessie, who is looking after her infirm aunt and father when she is herself diagnosed with cancer, and Janeane Garofalo, in her Broadway debut, as Bessie’s sister Lee, a single mom to two teens, one of whom is in a mental hospital after setting fire to their home. Even if you are able to recover from the temporal whiplash of seeing two Gen X movie heroines (Taylor of Say Anything, Garofalo of Reality Bites) cast in sandwich-generation roles, the question remains: Why Marvin’s Room now?
Sitting where it does on the continuum of funny-sad cancer stories — after Terms of Endearment, before Wit and The Big C — Marvin’s Room no longer gibes with current attitudes about the disease. Bessie, at one point believing she is the only one awake, heads for the kitchen without her wig, exposing her shorn hair. When Lee flips on the light, Bessie skitters and covers her head with her hands, a gesture that feels antiquated in an age when public figures like Robin Roberts allow themselves to be photographed while bald from chemo, looking proudly and beautifully defiant. Taylor, making a tough role appear effortless, wins our sympathy, but where is her fight? Details like this might matter less if the show followed one rule of terminal-illness comedies: Have us laughing through our tears. Because, while director Anne Kauffman’s take on Marvin’s Room is frequently funny, it is merely serious when you wish it would be moving.
Not that it lacks for issues of current anxiety — one can’t help but think of the Obamacare v. Trumpcare showdown as this working-class family’s medical crises mount. Besides Bessie facing cancer, Lee’s son Hank (a believably sullen Jack DiFalco) has mental health issues that go beyond adolescent moping, dad Marvin (never seen, but heard moaning beyond a glass brick wall) requires long-term care, and aunt Ruth (the terrific Celia Weston) battles chronic pain, managed by a device that — in one of the show’s better running gags — triggers the garage door to open. When Lee, still putting herself through cosmetology school, offers her sister money, Bessie rips up the check and says they’re doing fine. They are? The implied math would vex the Congressional Budget Office. Still, the text defies a modern update: Were Marvin’s Room to take place today, Facebook alone would lessen the gulf between the two women. (Of course, that way lies madness: What would La Boheme be with antibiotics? Or Romeo & Juliet with texting?) As it is, the way Bessie and others remember Lee, we are to understand her as a free spirit, verging on self-absorbed. But the earnest manner in which the likable Garofalo interprets her defies their withering assessments.
Now, or in any season, it’s worth celebrating a female-centric show directed by a woman. But is this the sister story we want in 2017? During the play’s authentically wearying family dust-ups, there are lulls in which to ponder its bad sister/good sister rubric. We know Lee is bad because, early on, she wants to smoke indoors when it isn’t allowed. We know Bessie is good because she can intuit their father’s every need, down to his delight when she flickers light onto his wall with a compact mirror. As the two women grow closer, they reveal themselves to be more than these outmoded stereotypes. But by the play’s end, when the mirror is again held up in Marvin’s room, it remains difficult to see ourselves reflected. B