Goodman Studio Theatre

The set is unsettlingly sterile, especially for a comedy: a severe modernist proscenium surmounts cold walls of glass bricks, varied by venetian blinds that only add to the clinical look. Not warm at all.

But then, despite the playwright’s best intentions, Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room is a pretty lukewarm creation. This Goodman Studio Theatre premiere is an uneasy amalgam of feel-good audience pandering, disease mongering a la Terms of Endearment, and oddball roles with sandwich-board eccentricities, which owe much to Beth Henley at her most blatant and John Guare at his most desperately quirky.

But worst of all, Marvin’s Room takes its light from the tube and its inspiration from surefire by-the-numbers formulas. With small-screen predictability, here one character naturally has the key to another’s problem. The surface oddities the characters sport are only decorations to disguise the fact that they’re stereotypes. This play’s inhabitants hide major secrets from loved ones for years–as if they knew a second act was coming. Then they burst out with revelations that, in a moment, break through the barriers of years of silence and misunderstanding. Neat tricks.

McPherson’s saintly, selfless heroine is Bessie, a plucky survivor who has moved to Florida to make sure her father, Marvin, a stroke victim, gets his hourly medicine. (Marvin, who’s never seen, just grunts and coos from his room behind the glass bricks. He loves to put things in his mouth, we gather, and is never sure which family members are real and which are apparitions.)

Bessie’s other charge is her dotty Aunt Ruth, who is–yuk, yuk–missing three vertebrae, which means she’s learned how to change her clothes without getting up. And–try not to split your sides–the electronic anesthetizer Ruth uses to kill her constant pain regularly short-circuits the garage-door opener.

After a lifetime of unquestioning devotion to others, Bessie learns, in a scene that comes perilously close to slapstick, that she has leukemia. Only a bone-marrow transplant from a close relation can save her, so Bessie’s estranged sister, Lee, and her two sons show up after a lapse of over 15 years. Of course, sick as she is, Bessie is soon ministering to her long-lost loved ones; she is the transplant they need. Conflicts, confessions, and hugs ensue, according to the standard formula. (McPherson does preserve some credibility as a playwright. Bessie still has leukemia at the end.)

The saddest thing here is the way McPherson creates cartoon characters, then asks us to care about them. It’s typical of his dishonest manipulations of us and his characters that, to get a laugh, he has Aunt Ruth say, when Lee congratulates her on no longer feeling chronic back pain, “I do sometimes miss it a little.” Unfortunately for him, the line is neither funny nor true. McPherson should try a little chronic pain himself and then write that line.

Examples abound of Beth Henley overkill, blowing up a character’s quirks out of all proportion and having them stand in for a personality. Like senile Aunt Ruth dressing up idiotically and painting her face hideously to attend a soap-opera character’s TV wedding. (This is an author’s compassion for his creation?) Or Aunt Ruth’s gratuitous story about a woman who dies in her bathroom; when her relations visit her home later for Thanksgiving, they don’t know she’s dead until they run out of towels in the guest bathroom. (Save this for News of the Weird.) Or the sick joke, repeated three times, that after Aunt Ruth is hugged despite her agonizing back pain, she blisses out when she turns on her anesthetizer. This is what killed vaudeville.

In McPherson’s world, you never depend on the kindness of strangers. When Bessie, momentarily left alone at Disney World, suddenly spits out blood and faints, the costumed Goofy who sees her fall waves moronically. What’s the point here? To punish Bessie and the theme park? Or us, who watch helplessly? An author who cares about his characters won’t put them through mean little jokes, through unennobling suffering–unless he’s howling fury at an indifferent universe, and King Lear this is not.

So what attracted an excellent director like David Petrarca to Marvin’s Room? Well, it does have the kind of bittersweet intensity that marked McPherson’s earlier ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings. Marvin’s Room is filled with scenery-chewing dialogue, screwball non sequiturs, and throbbing outpourings–it’s catnip to actors savvy enough to energize its cliches.

Petrarca’s first-rate cast, especially Laura Esterman as Bessie, exploit their formulas with uncompromising zeal. Handed a character almost inhumanly radiant, with flawless wisdom and effortless compassion, Esterman is never phony but remains fragile and achingly real because of all the pain she hides from others.

Lee Guthrie, in a role named for her, is all gutsy and hard. It’s a shame: she usually shines in warmer roles, and her character’s lack of loving does not suit Guthrie’s natural glow. She’s much more at home in Lee’s final emotional meltdown; the heart-to-heart between the sisters is the play’s sincerest scene, beautifully written and rendered.

Though Jane MacIver plays Aunt Ruth with a dithering directness, the character still seems a throwback to those mean Carol Burnett spoofs of senility. Mark Rosenthal as Hank snarls convincingly but can’t establish an inner life McPherson only hints at. Tim Monsion’s Dr. Wally is frighteningly inept. At least he didn’t write the part; even Moliere would have found this medical spoofery cruel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.