nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 20, 2006
It’s easy to see why Scott McPherson’s now-classic play, Marvin’s Room, has remained so enduringly popular: it’s a tearjerker. This comically black tale of a dysfunctional family that reunites in the face of looming tragedy mixes twisted humor and melancholy drama in a skillful way, resulting in a frequently funny and unexpectedly touching script that offers some juicy roles and runs the emotional gamut. A play like this is catnip for an outfit like the T. Schreiber Studio, a professional acting school that produces an annual season of shows for its current students. If only their current revival of Marvin’s Room were up to the task of delivering everything this play has to offer. Unfortunately, the cast lacks the necessary blend of craft, talent, and experience needed to pull it off.
Spinster-ish Bessie has spent the last twenty-or-so years caring for her elderly father, Marvin (she half-jokingly claims he’s been taking that long to die), and watching after her doddering aunt, Ruth, in their Florida home. Ruth, a devoted fan of the soaps, has a bad back and shouldn’t fall asleep while sitting down, but often does anyway. (At one point she implores Bessie to tell her when she’s sleeping because she doesn’t always know.) When Bessie is diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, her long-estranged sister, Lee, arrives from Ohio to help her out. Lee, a single mom and a goodtime gal, has problems of her own: her oldest son, Hank, has been institutionalized for burning down their house, and his erratic, unpredictable behavior keeps driving her potential suitors off. (Their relationship could, at best, be called fractured.) Nevertheless, she whisks Hank and her younger son, Charlie (a bookish nerd), off to Florida in the hopes that one of them will be a bone marrow match for Bessie.
With this much emotional tumult going on, Marvin’s Room could easily turn into one of Aunt Ruth’s cheesy soap operas. But McPherson avoids the melodramatic reversals those programs rely on, opting instead for more plausible and well-earned manipulations (think Terms of Endearment). The weepy parts are easier to take because of the play’s somewhat absurdist humor, exemplified best in a story Aunt Ruth tells about a nurse who’s been hired to take care of Marvin during Bessie’s brief hospital stay. When asked how she explained the nurse’s presence to him (apparently, Marvin is confused by the disruption of his normal routine), Aunt Ruth simply says, “I pretend not to notice her.” Her rationale is that if she ignores the nurse, then Marvin will hopefully think he’s hallucinating (which, to her mind, is better than telling him the truth). Whenever the nurse lifts him out of bed and carries him to the bathroom, Aunt Ruth tells him, “Look, Marvin—you’re flying!”
Lee is also a conveyor of McPherson’s warped drollness. She doesn’t like to tell people that Hank is in a mental institution, preferring the terms “loony bin” or “nuthouse” instead (she thinks they’re both better for Hank because they lessen the gravity of the situation). Later, while visiting a potential assisted living facility for Marvin, Lee empties an entire complimentary candy dish into her purse. The visit has been a total waste of their time, she tells Bessie (it turns out the place is too expensive), so they might as well get something out of it. (McPherson even extends his off-kilter perspective to self-righteous Bessie. Mortified by Lee’s blatant theft, she immediately dumps her spare change into the dish to pay for the candy. A brief, but funny, battle of wills ensues.)
With such a wide palette of emotional colors to play with, it’s a shame that the cast of Marvin’s Room doesn’t have more fun with them. With only one or two exceptions, almost all of the performances are deadly earnest, but lack urgency. The actors tentatively commit to their choices, and speed through entire scenes mechanically without landing their key moments. Simply put, there is very little nuance to the acting here. The main exception is Jill Bianchini, who hits all the right notes as Lee. Adair Jameson nails Aunt Ruth’s funniness, but fails to mine the role for more richness or dimension. As Bessie, Noelle Holly is only as good as the person she’s acting opposite. When paired with some of the less accomplished cast members, this produces some mixed results. But once Bessie and Lee are reunited, and the play starts to focus on them, this Marvin’s Room hits its stride. Holly holds her own with Bianchini nicely, and she achieves real impact during a powerful Act II speech in which Bessie tells the story of her one true love.
Even though he’s unable to elicit a uniformly high level of performance from the cast, director Peter Jensen demonstrates understanding of the play through physical staging and spatial relations among the characters. Lighting designer Peter Hoerburger and costume designer Astrid Brucker make fine contributions, but the real behind-the-scenes triumph belongs to set designer Ryan Scott, whose multi-purpose set makes the intimate Gloria Maddox Theatre look and feel bigger than it is.
Having seen previous work of theirs, I know that the T. Schreiber Studio, a consistently reliable producing organization, is capable of much better work than this. I’m sure they will rise to the occasion more successfully the next time around.