July 8, 2017

Pondering the Metaphysics of Life in "Marvin's Room and "Cost of Living"

What's the purpose of life?  I know that's a ridiculously big question but it's been on my mind because two shows I've recently seen take direct aim at that metaphysical enigma. And both come up with the same answer: to take care of someone outside ourselves and to allow someone to get close enough to take care of us.

Although the answer was the same, the question rang differently when Scott McPherson posed it back in 1991 when his play Marvin's Room debuted at Playwrights Horizons and quickly extended for a commercial run at the Minetta Lane Theatre that ended two months before McPherson died from AIDS complications at the age of just 33.

None of the characters in Marvin's Room have AIDS but several are staring mortality straight in the face. The titular, but unseen, Marvin had a stroke that's left him unable to do much of anything except moan. His sister Ruth wages a losing battle against chronic pain caused by collapsed vertebrae and memory loss caused by the electrodes doctors have inserted in her brain to help ease that discomfort.

Marvin's daughter Bessie has spent 20 years caring for her father and aunt but as the play opens, she discovers she has leukemia and is forced to summon her estranged sister Lee, who arrives at the family's modest Florida home with two troubled sons and no idea of how to care for anyone.

The play won both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards and The New York Times drama critic Frank Rich hailed it as "one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving." A 1996 film version starred  Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep as the sisters.

Alas, the Roundabout Theatre Company's lugubrious revival, now playing at the American Airlines Theatre through Aug. 27, doesn't live up to that pedigree. Most of the blame for that has to fall on director Anne Kauffman, who in her first Broadway venture has failed to establish the right tone for the show or to help guide her cast through its admittedly tricky passages.

Janeane Garofalo, also making her Broadway debut, is totally flat as the self-centered Lee and seems at moments just happy to have remembered her lines. Lili Taylor is more sympathetic as the put-upon Bessie but displays little of the character's struggle to make herself believe that her life has had value because, as she tells Lee, "I am so lucky to have loved so much." (Click here to read an interview with both actresses).

Only Celia Weston as dotty Aunt Ruth captures the bracing tonic of melancholy and willful optimism that McPherson created. Without that mix, Marvin's Room is kind of empty.

Cost of Living, the new play by Martyna Majok at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, reinvigorates McPherson's formula with contemporary compassion and wit. It links two stories about disabled people and their caretakers.

In the first, a wealthy Princeton grad student with cerebral palsy hires a down-on-her-luck woman to help him with basic tasks that include shaving and showering him each morning. His needs are obvious and he has to make himself physically naked in order to get them met (yep; there is nudity). Her needs are less apparent but they're all the more poignant when revealed.

Meanwhile in another New Jersey town, a thirtysomething woman has been in a car accident that has left her a quadriplegic and in need of full-time help. Her ex-husband, an out-of-work truck driver, volunteers for the job but it's unclear whether he's doing it out of guilt, love or some unspoken need of his own.

Gregg Mozgala, who plays the grad student, and Katy Sullivan, who plays the quadriplegic woman, are themselves disabled, although less severely than their characters. They're also terrific in these roles. Not just terrific for disabled actors but terrific period, creating characters who refuse to settle for cheap sympathy and who aren't afraid to be a pain in the ass.

Jolly Abraham and Victor Williams are equally good as the caretakers. Majok and director Jo Bonney are to be congratulated for casting actors of color in these roles, particularly because little mention of race is made. 

Williams emerges as the emotional linchpin of the play and it's wonderful to see a black actor get the chance to show a tenderness that men of color rarely get to exhibit onstage.

Still, the highest praise must go to Majok, who respects the full range of the humanity—the good, the bad, the prickly—in all four of her subjects (click here to read an interview with her).

The final scene ties things up too neatly for me but under Bonney's astute direction, Cost of Living, which runs only through next weekend, makes you look past corporeal concerns and into the soul-defining needs we all share.

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