Broadway door opens into “Marvin’s Room”

In life there are the care-givers, the care-receivers, and those who simply don’t care. All three are represented in Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” finally debuting on Broadway, thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company, after its 1990s Regional and off-Broadway runs. Like other socially conscious plays from that era – Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” comes to mind – “Marvin’s Room” attempts to mesh Drama and Comedy, and, like “Heart,” it succeeds.

McPherson’s play was inspired by the circumstances of some older Florida relatives in declining health and further influenced by his personal experience caring for his AIDS-afflicted partner, cartoonist and activist Daniel Sotomayor, who died in February 1992 at age 33. In a tragic irony, the playwright himself succumbed to the same scourge nine months later, also at 33.

Lily Taylor,  Janeane Garofalo and Jack DiFalco  [Photo: Joan Marcus]

          Middle-aged sisters Bessie (Lili Taylor) and Lee (Janeane Garofalo) could not be more different from one another. Bessie has sacrificed her independence to care for their father, Marvin, bedridden with terminal cancer, as well as for their aunt, Marvin’s sister, whose spine is withering. Lee had gone her own way, cutting off all contact. In the years since the sisters split, Lee’s marriage failed and her late-teen son Hank (Jack DiFalco) has been undergoing treatment in a mental institution after setting his mother’s house on fire. Younger son Charlie is a quiet, bookish, budding intellectual. After Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia in the play’s opening scene, its funniest (funny? leukemia? believe it), Lee shows up with the boys in tow. Could one of them be Bessie’s bone marrow match? More to the point, will they care enough even to be tested?

It takes a while to accept Bessie and Lee as sisters, but Taylor and Garofalo establish something of a bond, however tenuous, despite their characters’ opposing values. This is not Ms. Garofalo’s first time out of the wise-cracking fem gate; let’s just say that Ms. Taylor’s is the more nuanced, natural performance. The disturbed Hank’s love-hate relationship with his mother that erupted in arson is captured by an intense (but not too method-y) DiFalco.

The play veers into soap-opera melodrama in spots, but director Anne Kaufman hauls it back, keeping us involved with the family-of-many-discomforts. We root for someone to be a bone-marrow match for Bessie. Whether or not anyone does match is revealed at the end. Of the play, not of this review.

          Through August 27 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. For schedule and tickets ($47-$147): 212-719-1300 or at www.roundabouttheatre.org

“Marvin’s Room” won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Best Play Awards in 1992. The 1996 movie, with John Guare’s screenplay, starred Meryl Streep as Lee, Diane Keaton as Bessie and Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank, with Robert DeNiro playing Bessie’s doctor. Cynthia Nixon and Kelly Ripa appeared in small roles.      

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“Halftime With Don” worth your time…

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. Symptoms, which manifest themselves eight-to-ten years later, begin with memory loss and general physical, social and judgmental instability, leading inexorably to dementia and a propensity to harm others…or oneself. There is now a play about a retired NFL linebacker exhibiting symptoms of CTE. What took so long?

Ken Weitzman’s “Halftime With Don,” simultaneously world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company and a couple other U. S. houses, is a fictional drama whose most interesting portions are semi-documentary. This is not a knock, by any means. The well-founded points made about CTE add to a sense of reality. (The play is not about football per se, but name-checking such as Junior Seau and Mike Webster drive the theme home.)

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Shakespeare, Shaw and More: North of the Border

William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw are the raisons d’être for the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Ontario, where those venerated playwrights (and others) are staged by world-class directors, actors and designers. The venues being a couple hours’ drive apart makes a tandem visit a piece of cake, but an either-or coin-flip would be a no-lose. I recently attended both.

At Stratford…

When, in Shakespeare’s only double-titled play, “Twelfth Night or What You Will,” shipwreck-survivor Viola assumes a man’s dress, demeanor and name (Cesario), she and her twin brother Sebastian are indistinguishable from one another, causing no end of confusion among their would-be paramours. Viola digs her employer Orsino, who knows her as Cesario, while Orsino yearns for Olivia, who lusts for Cesario. Talk about your triangles!

Finally paired up: Olivia (Shannon Taylor), left, Sebastian (Michael Blake), Viola (Sarah Afful) and Orsino (E.B. Smith) [Photos: Cylia von Tiedmann]

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Blog, Canadian Theatre

Half-way to ’18 already! My goodness, where did the time go?

With the year nearly half spent, some random observations before leaving for Ontario to cover the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for Digital First Media newspapers in Michigan (and online) and for MC2, the Canadian National Mensa magazine. So…a few observations from first half of 2017:

Much ado about very little: The Public’s free Shakespeare in Central Park’s production of “Julius Caesar,” condemned and cut off financially by folks who probably didn’t see it (and interrupted mid-scene by one zealot) was not a particularly outstanding production of that play. As in most others I’ve seen, the final third (after the orations) was a heavy sit-through. The principals were well cast and acted, with Elizabeth Marvel most interesting as Marc Antony, despite portions of her Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech being overpowered by a distracting, wandering, undisciplined horde of supernumeraries. As for the Trump-like Caesar flap: as my colleague Charles Gross pointed out, Caesar actually resembled Bill Clinton as much as he did Trump. And, you’ll recall, the misguided conspirators all end up dead, some by their own hands. Shakespeare knew: Assassination does not pay.

From left: Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Gregg Henry (Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca) and Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Antony)

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

Musicals in the Garden State: “Little Jo” at Two River and Paper Mill’s “Mary Poppins”

Anyone who does not believe truth is stranger than fiction hasn’t been following the news lately…or has never heard about Joe Monaghan, whose story is encapsulated in the playbill of Two River Theater Company’s “The Ballad of Little Jo.” The relatively short article is an absorbing read about the real-life fellow whose life is fictionalized in the musical play, in turn adapted from director/screenwriter Maggie Greenwood’s widely praised 1993 movie.

Okay, the ‘fellow’ tag is a tease. Joe Monaghan was a woman.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The 2017 Broadway Tony Awards: Predictions and Preferences

Some Broadway plays and musicals succeed or fail regardless of Tony Award consideration, but the fate of many more depends heavily on nominations, not even considering wins. Ticket sales for “Oslo” and “Groundhog Day,” for example, perked up the very day after their Best Play and Best Musical nominations were announced. Conversely, the musical “Amalie” announced its premature closing (on May 21) soon after receiving none.

While all shows are not Tony-dependent (hello “Hello, Dolly!”), others, including “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” with its dozen nominations, need the boost. Some 850 voters will determine the fates among those anointed by 43 nominators. The 850 include press reps, producers, road-show bookers and other theater insiders. (For reasons known only to the sponsoring American Theatre Wing, most critics were disenfranchised several years ago. Go figure.) CBS-TV will broadcast the Award ceremony at 8PM on Sunday, June 11.

Following are predictions and preferences in 14 major categories:

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater