Theater Review: ‘Marvin’s Room’

A look at family obligations
July 16, 2017 Updated: July 27, 2017

NEW YORK—Being a caregiver can require much more than simply tending to another’s needs. Often, it means putting your own life on hold—for who knows how long.

Now making its belated Broadway debut at the American Airlines Theatre, “Marvin’s Room,” by playwright Scott McPherson, looks at when a system of caregiving breaks down. The 1990 work is presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

‘Marvin’s Room’ presents an interesting portrait of a family in crisis.

For the better part of 20 years, Bessie (Lili Taylor) has been taking care of her ailing father—bedridden since suffering a stroke—at the family home in Florida. Also requiring Bessie’s attention, due to crippling back pain, is Marvin’s sister Ruth (Celia Weston). While Ruth does try to help with her brother’s care, it is Bessie who tends to them both on a full-time basis.

Now, however, it’s Bessie who is in need of help. She’s been diagnosed with leukemia, the same disease that killed her mother. Bessie’s best hope for survival is a bone marrow transplant from a healthy family member. The strongest candidate is her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), whom she hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.

The sisters’ relationship is so tenuous that Bessie doesn’t even mention her to Dr. Wally (Triney Sandoval), until he remarks he saw a notation about it in her file. Lee, having decided long ago to have her own life, is living in Ohio as a single mom with two boys and a degree in cosmetology.

(L) Bessie (Lili Taylor) takes care of her aunt (Celia Weston) as well as her incapacitated father, in
(L–R) Bessie (Lili Taylor) takes care of her aunt (Celia Weston) as well as her incapacitated father in “Marvin’s Room.” (Joan Marcus)

Lee is the opposite of Bessie when it comes to patience and temperament.

She also has a strained relationship with her eldest son, Hank (Jack DiFalco). The 17-year-old is currently in a psychiatric institution, although, as he notes, “they don’t strap me down anymore.”

As for the younger child, Charlie (Luca Padovan), he spends most of his time reading, using it as a way to insulate himself from his mother and brother’s rather tense relationship. Both children accompany Lee to Florida to see whether any of them might be a bone marrow match for Bessie.

Lee, who is doing her best to be a good mother to her children, clearly doesn’t want to pick up her life and move halfway across the country and lose her independence, the way she believes her sister did. But Bessie, appearing to have the patience of a saint, protests that she did what she had to do and doesn’t mind the sacrifices it entailed.

“Marvin’s Room” presents an interesting portrait of a family in crisis, asking what happens to someone’s life and dreams when they are called upon to drop everything and become a caregiver for a loved one. Coupled with this is the question of where one’s family responsibilities start and end.

While the play touches on some very serious issues and offers a number of touching moments, this production often feels like a situation comedy, with snappy rejoinders coming thick and fast; or, alternatively, as a schmaltzy disease-of-the-week television movie.

Many of these problems come from Anne Kauffman’s direction. There are numerous hints of tension between the sisters, most of them coming from Lee as she exhibits both defiance and guilt for her past actions, but the issues between them aren’t explored deeply.

Another problem is the side characters of Dr. Wally, who has a chronic inability to remember people’s names, and the two roles assumed by actress Nedra McClyde. She plays both a doctor in the institution where Hank is staying and the director of a retirement home that Lee and Bessie visit. All three of these characters come across as caricatures, which may add humor to uncomfortable situations, but it’s taken to such an extreme here that it cheapens the effect.

Taylor is appealing as the stoic Bessie, the person everyone depends upon in one aspect and takes for granted in another. Watson does well as Ruth, the well-meaning aunt with a penchant for soap operas. Ruth also offers a rare chance for the audience to see Bessie’s angry side, when she forgets Bessie’s instructions about giving Marvin his medication.

Garofalo is good as Lee, a woman trying to balance her own needs with those of being a strong mother, perhaps trying too hard in that regard. DiFalco is intriguing as Hank. Brooding and quiet throughout, his character, more than anyone else’s, learns what it means to be part of a family.

“Marvin’s Room” has a lot to say about the sacrifices people make for those they care about. The current Broadway revival, however, doesn’t say it as well as it could.

‘Marvin’s Room’
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Aug. 27

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.