“Marvin’s Room” runs at American Airlines Theatre through Aug. 27. 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org.
Twenty-five years after playwright Scott McPherson died at 33 of AIDS, his 1990 comedic drama “Marvin’s Room” (which was adapted into a starry 1997 film) is receiving its Broadway premiere in an uneven production by the Roundabout Theatre Company led by Lili Taylor (“American Crime”) and Janeane Garofalo (“Wet Hot American Summer”), who is making her Broadway debut.
Forty-year-old Bessie (Taylor), who has devoted her life to taking care of her elderly father, Marvin (who is hidden from our view), and helpless aunt Ruth (Celia Weston), goes to see the absent-minded local doctor (Triney Sandoval) because of what she suspects is just a vitamin deficiency. It turns out to be leukemia.
With Bessie in need of a bone-marrow transplant, her apathetic sister Lee (Garofalo) pays a long-overdue visit along with her two children, including 17-year-old Hank (Jack DiFalco), who was recently committed to a mental institution.
In a program note, McPherson (whose partner also died of AIDS) wrote that “at times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another.”
A cute sense of humor pops up throughout the play, such as when Ruth dresses up for a special episode of her favorite television soap opera, Lee shamelessly dumps a tray of candy into her purse while touring a nursing home and Bessie is rescued at Disney World by a costumed cartoon character.
Staging the play is deceptively difficult, as its slow pace and confessional mini-monologues can easily become tedious, and that is often the case with this production (directed by Anne Kauffman, who has extensive Off-Broadway credits).
Laura Jellinek’s misconceived set design is overly expansive (with the actors frequently far away from each other) and elaborate (requiring the assistance of visible stagehands) and yet still incomplete (with a backyard scene performed around the kitchen).
Garofalo captures Lee’s plain-spoken nature, but her performance is so underplayed that it comes off as lacking. On the other hand, Taylor gives a gentle but revealing portrait of a brave and benevolent woman.
“Marvin’s Room” stands out compared with so many other family dramas because of its refreshing optimism and love of life (even despite serious illness, physical disability, estrangement and the need to make major personal sacrifices), but its emotional reach mostly gets lost in this production.