"Nobody ever does anything to be nice," says the troubled teen Hank in Marvin's Room. "People don't just do things. They get something for it." It's a dark philosophy that bumps up against tongue-in-cheek humor in Scott McPherson's funny and poignant play as it takes a look at how we find joy amid the fear and pain that accompany terminal illness. It's unfortunate that more of the play's humor doesn't come through in Roundabout Theatre Company's production at the American Airlines Theatre. Director Anne Kauffman paints this small, intensely intimate family drama with broad strokes that sometimes obscure the comic moments that lighten the darkness.
Bessie (Lili Taylor) has nursed her father, Marvin, for years following his stroke. They live modestly in Florida with Ruth, Bessie's 70-year-old, soap-opera-addicted aunt (Celia Weston). Ruth suffers from back pain, but she's been given an electrical device that alleviates her suffering — it also accidentally activates the garage door on occasion. One day, Bessie receives news that she has leukemia and that the best chance for a cure is a bone-marrow donor. So she contacts her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), who comes down from Ohio with her two sons, Hank (Jack DiFalco) and Charlie (Luca Padovan). Hank has been in a mental institution for burning down the family's house. Sparks flare up between the sisters when old hurts are revisited. Eventually, they realize that the cure for their suffering may be the challenging gift of simply being there for each other.
Marvin's Room, inspired by McPherson's experiences caring for his partner, who died from AIDS-related complications, made its New York premiere in 1991 at Playwrights Horizons. McPherson died in 1992, also from AIDS-related illness. This intimate play about terminal illness at times gets lost on the large American Airlines stage. Laura Jellinek's sprawling set, with its towering walls of decorative cement brick, gives the impression of a palatial rather than a modest home, an effect heightened by Japhy Weideman's lighting, which captures the brilliance of Florida sunshine.
McPherson's script, with its numerous scene changes, does have a cinematic quality to it, which might suggest it should do well in a larger space. The play was, in fact, made into a 1996 film starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Leonardo DiCaprio. But in this production, subtleties are sometimes missed in the sweeping panorama of a scene. When the family visits Disney World, for example, a spaceship-like wheel made of bamboo descends from the flies. As Bessie sits alone sipping a soda with that enormous wheel rotating slowly above her, it's easy to miss the telling bit of blood that appears on her straw.
The performances help compensate for the outsize production. Taylor and Garofalo, who makes her Broadway debut, create a sibling antagonism that feels natural enough. "Hank, did Bessie offer you a chip yet?" Lee barks as her son takes a greasy chip, then crushes it in his hand while Bessie looks on, flabbergasted. Taylor's performance feels a bit one-note as the play goes on, but she and Garofalo play the sisters' personalities off each other with convincing passive-aggression.
Surprisingly, most of the humorous moments come from the other actors. Weston, the show's standout, does her garage-door shtick with impeccable timing. Triney Sandoval gets regular laughs as the absentminded Dr. Wally. And in two small roles, Nedra McClyde charms with her smiling aloofness. DiFalco, with his gritty angry-young-man gloom, has a steely-eyed intensity and spot-on delivery that makes for an impressive Broadway debut.
In the end, despite the incongruities between the production and the play itself, Marvin's Room resonates with beautiful insights into the ways we approach the end of life. We never meet Marvin, but we see his shadowy, bedridden form (Carman Lacivita) through the glass wall of his room and listen to him laugh as Bessie makes a shard of light dance through the air. The room seems distant from us, but we know that we may enter a similar one someday. Find a flash of joy, McPherson seems to say, and bring that in with you.