Theater Review: MARVIN’S ROOM (Actors Co-op)

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by Tony Frankel on March 8, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


Actors Co-op is reviving Scott McPherson‘s extraordinary play Marvin’s Room. While it has always been one of my favorite plays, it’s a daunting choice for any company. The play requires a delicate touch so the sentiment doesn’t turn into bathos and the black humor stumble into vulgarity. Under Thomas James O’Leary’s sensitive directorial touch, it’s a near-perfect attempt that does credit to the ensemble. McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 33, gives us an extraordinary play in that the heartbreaking material is also very funny and very compassionate. This play packs the most gentle wallop, and this production follows suit.

Dean Hermansen, Tara Battani

You will never see the title character. He’s an old man ravaged by cancer and senility, but he hangs on living in a dark room in his Florida home with his caregiver — his daughter Bessie, a sweet 40-year old unmarried woman who is getting sick herself. She is surrounded by a set of bizarre yet complementary characters who give the play’s outwardly realistic tone a surrealistic flavor. Bessie not only cares for her decaying father, she attends to Marvin’s elderly sister Ruth, a dotty old woman who has electrodes in her brain to stop the pain of three collapsed vertebrae; every time she activates the electrodes, the house’s garage door goes up.

Francesca Casale, Crystal Jackson

Then there is Bessie’s hard-boiled sister Lee, a cosmetician and single mother with a whiff of trailer trash about her. Lee arrives from Ohio with her two troubled teen-aged sons, Hank and Charlie; she hasn’t seen her family in many years and her appearance reignites friction with Bessie that has lain dormant during their long separation. Hank has just been released from a mental institution, where he was being treated for anti-social behavior; his rebellious personality is taking his mother to the emotional edge.

Francesca Casale, Kimi Walker, Tara Battani

Bessie is much put upon by all the supporting characters, but she is a genuinely good person, not a martyr to her family’s demands but a woman who takes pleasure in serving others. In one of the play’s most touching passages, she proclaims “I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much. I am so lucky to have loved so much. I am so lucky.” This from a woman facing an unpleasant death from an incurable disease.

Tara Battani, Francesca Casale

Casting needs to be pinpoint to make Marvin’s Room credible and not jokey or maudlin. Front and center for me is Brian Habicht as a physician of stupendous insensitivity and even more stupendous incompetence who treats Bessie for her illness. The centerpiece to the play’s black comedy, Habicht gives a pitch-perfect performance by balancing the authenticity of his character with McPherson’s laugh lines. A stupendous job.

Dean Hermansen, Tara Battani, Crystal Jackson, Marek Meyers

Francesca Casale is rapturous as Bessie, delivering a sensitive performance, especially in the second act when Bessie faces the finality of her condition; Casale credibly exposes Bessie’s innate goodness, occasionally with a bit of an edge that enhances her humanity. Tara Battani is very credible as Lee, emotionally taxed by a failed marriage that left her with two sons — and now she has a family in Florida with needs she isn’t prepared to meet. What a deliciously understated performance. Lanky Dean Hermansen’s Hank never overplay’s the teen’s anger, just barely dipping into the angst and vulnerability beneath the surface; this Hank seethes from the inside. Marek Myers is terrific as Hank’s younger brother, Charlie. Crystal Yvonne Jackson is a most talented actress, and I did indeed enjoy watching her, but she is miscast as the dotty sister Ruth; for starters, she’s not so dotty here, just empathetic. But Jackson is also Black, which doesn’t make sense as being a part of the White family. Colorblind casting may work somewhere else, but sadly Ms. Jackson’s casting feels like an attempt to have more people of color on the stage. Nonetheless, she develops great empathy for her character.

Marek Myers, Crystal Jackson

The ensemble is rounded out by Kimi Walker and Justin Bowles, who provides the gibberish voice of the hidden Marvin. Avery Reagan, who is responsible for the lighting, does a great job, especially when Nicholas Acciani‘s flexible all-purpose glass-brick-centered rotating set that fits nicely within the tight confines of The David Schall Theatre; E.B. Brooks designed the costumes; and David B. Marling the sound.

photos by Larry Sandez

Marek Myers, Francesca Casale, Tara Battani

Marvin’s Room
Actors Co-op, The David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30 (Sat matinees on March 5 & March 12 at 2:30)
ends on March 27, 2022
for tickets ($25-$35), call (323) 462-8460 or visit Actors Co-op

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