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‘Marvin’s Room,’ A New Play by Scott McPherson, Opens Off-Broadway

December 6, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Marvin has been dying for 20 years - ″Real slow so I don’t miss anything,″ says his dutiful daughter Bessie - and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to make a final exit.

He’s a spectral, bedridden and only partially glimpsed presence in ″Marvin’s Room,″ Scott McPherson’s very funny and very moving new play about death and family obligations and the ability to deal with both.

″Funny″ is an odd adjective to use in describing a work that dwells obsessively on death. ButMcPherson’s play is so skillful that it is able to juggle black humor and heartfelt emotion simultaneously and not turn into something either unduly grotesque or unbearably sentimental. The production opened Thursday at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

Marvin may be the play’s title character but its main focus is on the forlorn Bessie, who not only takes care of her father but also of her slightly dotty Aunt Ruth in their Florida home.

The aunt has her ailments, too - collapsed back vertebrae. Doctors fitted the older woman’s brain with electric doodads and allowed her to control the pain through a box strapped to her waist. Unfortunately, the box causes the garage doors to fly open, especially when somebody gives her a hug.

Their problems deepen when Bessie learns she has leukemia and needs a bone- marrow transplant to survive. The most likely donors are Bessie’s long- estranged sister Lee, a recent beauty-school graduate, and Lee’s two teen- age children, Hank and Charlie.

Hank is more than troubled. He burned down the family house - and most of the block - back in Ohio and has spent much of his time in ″the looney bin.″ The family didn’t call it a mental institution, confides his mother ″to show we have a sense of humor about it.″

The family’s reunion is fragile at best and culminates in their visit to Disney World, where Bessie collapses. She wakes up in a small cradle of a bed marked ″Baby Bear″ and located in the theme park’s children’s rest area. It’s an unsettling image - a frail, sickly woman folded into this tiny space, a miniature tomb in the cheeriest of places.

It’s fascinating and often hilarious watching this extended family learn about and cope with each other. ″Can I go watch grandpa breathe?″ asks the bookish younger son when looking for some form of amusement.

The two sisters reach an especially poignant understanding when the beautician agrees to style her sister’s dowdy wig. Bessie shyly takes off the hairpiece and reveals the devastating effects of chemotherapy as well as some details about her own love life that her sister never knew.

Laura Esterman, a gaunt, wide-eyed scarecrow, gives a delicate, wonderful performance as the heroic Bessie. Bessie is a good woman who does the right thing, and Esterman manages to not only make ″good″ interesting but affecting, too.

But then the whole cast is excellent - particularly Lisa Emery as the brittle, harassed sister; Alice Drummond as the addled aunt who finds her television soap opera more real than real life; and Mark Rosenthal as the hostile Hank, the embittered teen-ager who keeps resisting the ever-tightening bonds of family duty. There’s also a fine comic turn by a smiling Tim Monsion as a frightfully inept doctor who acts like he graduated from the Monty Python School of Medicine.

Director David Petrarca has marshaled his cast with great care and sensitivity. The humor and heartbreak are never forced. They exist side by side in this play that is at its most life-affirming when the characters confront and then accept death. It makes for a truly enriching evening of theater.

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