It’s a curious and counterintuitive choice the Roundabout has made, bringing the 1991 play Marvin’s Room to Broadway for the first time. Seeing it is a time-travel experience, down to the glass-brick wall on the set: This is a product of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when overwhelming earnestness and a life-threatening illness were the way for a comedy to gain critical respect. It’s from the years of thirtysomething and Sisters and St. Elsewhere and Steel Magnolias, and Marvin’s Room is a more ambitious theatrical sibling to them all. It’s goyish Neil Simon, a weepie with a lot of pretty good jokes injected into it — a dramedy, if that word does not immediately make you run screaming.
It’s also built around a family story that anyone can appreciate. Two sisters are estranged. One (Bessie) is the good girl, never married, who’s been in Florida for 20 years, taking care of her invalid father, Marvin, and her disabled aunt, Ruth. The other, Lee, has been in Ohio the whole time, involved with a variety of lousy men, and has two boys, one of whom has just burned their house down and is living in a mental hospital. Bessie soon discovers that she has leukemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant, and Lee brings her kids down from Ohio for genetic testing and a Disney World visit. She hasn’t seen her father in two decades. So the play’s tension is set up: selflessness versus selfishness, or dutiful drabness versus free spirit, or living for someone else’s life versus living for yourself. Along with the wacky forgetful aunt, there’s a wacky forgetful doctor, as if this weren’t Neil Simon-ish enough.
Scott McPherson, who had a huge hit with Marvin’s Room in Chicago and then Off Broadway in 1991, was of course not writing about leukemia. Weeks after the New York opening, his partner died from AIDS at 33, and he followed a year later. Surely McPherson was watching friends and siblings take care of (or fail to take care of) everyone they knew. He had written a screenplay adaptation before he died, and the film that resulted, after a rewrite by John Guare, has a staggering cast: Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton as the sisters, Robert De Niro as the doctor, Leonardo DiCaprio as the troubled older son. The film was successful — Keaton got an Oscar nomination for it — and the play continues to be, owing partly to its perfect suitability for smaller theater companies. It requires seven actors and no complex tricks, and (apart from one scene at Disney World, which can be abstracted) the action mostly plays out in a house and a doctor’s office.
The actual interplay between the siblings should be, and is, timeless. But something a little hard to quantify has, in the intervening 25 years, flattened and attenuated this play’s power. (The same thing has happened to a lot of Neil Simon’s work, in fact.) There is a datedness to telling an emotional story packed with jokes — even good jokes — and Marvin’s Room, today, feels uneconomical. Especially in the first act, the play’s emotional grip repeatedly slips away while the banter plays out.
The actors are doing a hell of a job trying to hang onto it, though. It’s a fact that comedians are often way better at drama than people expect them to be — comedy requires emotional intelligence, which translates well to drama. It should therefore be no surprise that Janeane Garofalo, always one of the smartest comics there is, can turn her deadpan to another use. (God bless her, taking on a role inhabited onscreen by the greatest actress alive.) As Lee, Garofalo is laconic but not mean, vulnerable but not helpless, armored but not opaque. Lili Taylor, as her sister, has a harder part to play — is Bessie a doormat? a saint? bitter or lonely? — and manages to convey a lot of that complexity. (It was a clever choice to cast two actresses who are themselves often associated with the early-’90s time frame.) Even when the jokes go on too long, Taylor, Garofalo, and Celia Weston, as their goofy aunt, absolutely know how to deliver them.
Doing so in a Broadway house causes them some trouble, though. The stage of the American Airlines Theatre (and the set built upon it) is huge, so much so that when we’re in Bessie’s kitchen and hearing that she may be short of money, it’s hard to fathom, because the house seems immense. The scene in which the two sisters interact for the first time should be a roiling moment of unspoken emotional conflict, but the physical distance between them drains the moment of strength, and that’s not the only time it happens. The set cries out for a ceiling, to bring down the proscenium and add some claustrophobia to what (I think) is supposed to be a small Florida bungalow. That we never see into Marvin’s room itself is, I think, a dramatic suggestion that the very end of life is an unknowable thing. That we never actually do suggests that the emotional center here is just too far away, both physically and temporally, to be seen.
Marvin’s Room is at the American Airlines Theatre.