Marvin’s Room

Marvin’s Room: About Playwright Scott McPherson

Posted on: June 19th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs


With the opening of Marvin’s Room at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1990, playwright Scott McPherson emerged as one of the most talked-about new voices in the American theatre. The play went on to be produced in New York at Playwrights Horizons and then at the Minetta Lane Theater, garnering rave reviews each step of the way. The Chicago Tribune called it a “beautifully written, deeply moving new play”; The New York Times hailed McPherson as an “original” and “unexpected” voice who “you really must hear...for yourself.” Tragically, however, McPherson began battling AIDS-related health issues shortly after the writing of Marvin’s Room in the early ‘90s, and he passed away on November 7, 1992 at the age of 33. Now, 25 years after his untimely death, McPherson is remembered not only for his remarkable contributions to the American theatre, but also for the wisdom and warmth that he brought to a generation living under the spectre of AIDS.

For all the connections to the AIDS crisis that can be drawn in Marvin’s Room, the play was not actually written with the disease directly in mind, but rather was inspired by McPherson’s childhood experiences with his ailing family members. McPherson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1959. When he was only two years old, his father died in a car accident. To ease the family’s ensuing financial burden, McPherson’s mother moved them in with their maternal grandmother, who was struggling with cancer and, as McPherson notes in the program for Hartford Stage Company’s 1990 production of Marvin’s Room, had morphine injections that came at “regular intervals” with commercial breaks for “The Ed Sullivan Show.” McPherson’s mother, now a single parent, not only had to raise her three children and care for her mother, but also had to work as a department store sales clerk part-time to keep food on the table. “[My mother] threw herself at her responsibilities with a terrifying determination,” McPherson wrote in the Hartford Stage Company program, “afraid if she gave any less she would awake to find she was running off in the other direction, leaving all of us behind to fend for ourselves.” Much of the source material for Marvin’s Room, then, derives from McPherson’s childhood experiences watching his mother immerse herself in her familial responsibilities. The play, McPherson contends, is not as much about the dreariness of living with disease as it is about “love and the power of giving yourself to someone else.”

Marvin’s Room wasn’t the first play of McPherson’s that explored the unexpected humor in tragedy. While McPherson was away studying theatre and dance at Ohio University in the early ‘80s, his oldest brother died in a motorcycle accident. McPherson’s subsequent play, Til the Fat Lady Sings, follows a family who, in the wake of the death of their own son, tries desperately to grieve in private while facing down a barrage of well-meaning but comically overbearing sympathizers. Both darkly funny and painfully poignant, Til the Fat Lady Sings premiered at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago in 1987. It was McPherson’s first full-length playwriting credit in the midst of a career of writing for local television stations and acting in various shows throughout the city.

Encouraged by the success of Til the Fat Lady Sings, McPherson began work on Marvin’s Room in the late ‘80s and submitted it as an unsolicited manuscript to the Goodman Theatre, which accepted and produced it. It wasn’t long after its opening at the Goodman that McPherson met editorial cartoonist and AIDS activist Daniel Sotomayor, who would later become his lover. The pair moved in together, soon learning that Daniel was HIV-positive. A few months later, McPherson himself was hospitalized for complications resulting from AIDS-related pneumonia -- quite literally alongside Sotomayor, who shared a hospital room with McPherson while receiving his own treatment for AIDS-related health issues. It was in the aforementioned program for the Hartford Stage Company’s production of Marvin’s Room that McPherson publicly announced the illness from which he and Sotomayor suffered, along with all too many of their friends. In the note, McPherson describes their community as a group of people who “take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick.” The play, then, which had emerged out of McPherson’s memories of his ailing relatives and the care that his mother had administered to them, became, almost unintentionally, a mirror to McPherson’s own life and the community of AIDS sufferers who would alternately assume the role of caregiver in a time of crisis. “At times,” McPherson wrote, “an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for one another. By most we are thought of as dying. But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs.”

Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in Roundabout's 2017 production of MARVIN'S ROOM.

As Marvin’s Room prepared for its New York premiere, McPherson and Sotomayor fought to take a “vacation” from their illnesses, but they found it harder and harder to plan around their health. At the opening night of Marvin’s Room at Playwright Horizons in December 1991, McPherson was in noticeably bad condition, as was Sotomayor, who shivered under a blanket for the duration of the performance. McPherson nevertheless continued writing, even though he would every so often refer to himself, jokingly, as a “playwrit.” Paramount had purchased the film rights to Marvin’s Room, and McPherson himself was tasked with adapting it into a screenplay. He finished the screenplay in 1992, but, sadly, it would be his last completed work. Sotomayor passed away on February 5, 1992 from complications from AIDS, nine months before McPherson himself would succumb to the same illness.

Marvin’s Room went on to win the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, and the film, which stars Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio, premiered in 1996. Though McPherson’s career was short-lived, his unique humor and sagacious insight made for a legacy from which audiences are still learning today.

Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room

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This production marks the Broadway debut for Marvin’s Room, as well as for its director, Anne Kauffman, and its playwright, Scott McPherson. I’m particularly happy to be able to bring the play’s author to a larger stage because, sadly, Scott passed away at 33 in 1992, only a couple of years after making his mark on the theatre scene, and long before his work should have come to an end. Scott came of age in the time of AIDS, which took both him and his partner in close succession. And while Marvin’s Room is not about that disease, its attitude toward love in the face of suffering is indicative of the way that Scott himself handled the many curveballs that life threw his way.

When I tell you that Scott lost both his father and brother at a young age, and that the play was partially inspired by time he spent as a child in depressing circumstances with elderly relatives, you may understandably assume that Marvin’s Room is going to be, for lack of a better term, a huge bummer. And yet, I can say without hesitation that this play is utterly hilarious. In fact, it’s that unlikely humor that made me want to share it with you today.

Walking the tightrope that is tragicomedy is no easy feat, but Marvin’s Room pulls off that balancing act with aplomb. Even when dealing with life and death circumstances, this play manages to point out the absurdities that come with simply trying to survive. As we follow the character of Bessie through cancer treatment, her interactions with the medical establishment grow increasingly ridiculous. At the same time, her sister Lee’s attempts at tough-love parenting goes outlandishly off-course, all while Aunt Ruth’s pain treatment has the awkward side effect of occasionally opening the garage door. Even with bad news piling up, these characters can’t help but laugh, and the same is true for us as an audience.

For me, this play beautifully demonstrates that life is rarely one thing at a time. While the theatrical world is filled with neatly defined dramas and comedies, Marvin’s Room reminds us that the lines are more often blurred than not, and that it’s in those blurry places that things really get interesting and where people can truly surprise us.

I’m so pleased to be sharing Marvin’s Room with you, and I hope that you’ll share your response to this singular play with me. Please email me at -- I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback. I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director/CEO

Marvin's Room begins performances June 8 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room

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Ted Sod: Will you talk a bit about where you were born, where you were educated and how your career evolved?

Janeane Garofalo: I'll start with Newton, New Jersey, where I was born in 1964. My family, at the time, lived in Sparta, New Jersey. My mom went into labor near Newton. I lived in Sparta very briefly and then we moved to Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. The majority of my life was spent in Madison, New Jersey with a few years in Houston, Texas because my dad worked for Exxon, which was headquartered in both Elizabeth, New Jersey and Houston. We went back and forth. Then, I went to Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.

TS: Did you ever have any acting training?

JG: No, I didn't train, but I knew I wanted to be involved in comedy. I didn't start acting until I was 27. That was mostly because of my friendship with both Ben Stiller and Garry Shandling who both, in the same year, had TV shows. One was on Fox called “The Ben Stiller Show.” Garry was on HBO in “The Larry Sanders Show.” I got into acting very fortuitously, but unprepared. As it happens sometimes, I was given access to opportunities that I may or may not have deserved, and I worked quite a bit in the '90s. Then, those opportunities slowed down. Now, I have to audition for everything the way one would at the beginning of their career. It's almost like I've had to start again. This isn't me saying, "Oh, poor me!"; I'm just telling you how the heat eventually wears off as it did for me in the early 2000s. So, I took two years off to work at Air America. After two years, it's really hard as a middle aged lady to jump back into acting. A few years ago, I did do a play with The New Group entitled Russian Transport directed by Scott Elliott, which was really my first theatre work. I had done some work with the Fire Department Theater Company, but they were short vignettes. I was shocked when I got the audition for Marvin’s Room. I never thought I would get it because I still don't perceive of myself as a "real actor."

TS: What do you think the play Marvin’s Room is about? How do you relate to Lee, the character you are playing?

JG: Many good stories are essentially about the same thing: human beings. It doesn't matter what the era is or what the country is or where they are socio-economically or what have you. If the story is good, it’s about the human condition. How people relate to each other, the personal baggage that they bring to their relationships. In this case, there is the childhood issue with my character, Lee, and who did what to whom. She feels she was treated badly and we see how memory plays into that. There’s a constant tension between Lee and her sister, Bessie, regarding Lee’s leaving and not helping Bessie take care of their dad. It's like any family.

How I relate to Lee, personally, is that I can’t spend an enormous amount of time with my family. Unfortunately, when my siblings and I get together, we regress. We're 15 again. After the first hour of pleasantries, here comes the same argument we've been having since we were kids -- who did what to whom and who felt slighted. They all seem not to mind hanging out with each other. We are very different politically, culturally. I was raised in a conservative, religious household. By the time I was out of college, I was not only an atheist, but quite liberal in my politics. That is not the norm for my family in general. I find it difficult to navigate peaceably through certain conversations that come up. I don't want to have the same arguments over and over. I don't want to have the same conversations. I'm not proud of this, but I keep my distance. There's a resentment that builds up on both sides. This is, again, not me asking for sympathy. I had a very lovely childhood. I'm just saying I relate to the play in that I have kept a wider distance from my nuclear family than my other siblings have.

TS: What kind of preparation do you do for a role like this?

JG: I just think about it. I don't want to over-prepare before we go into rehearsals because one never knows. You don't want to get locked into something because it can be difficult to unlock yourself. One must remain completely open. I also don't want to memorize it before we start rehearsing. I don't want to get locked into a tone of voice or an inflection.

Janeane Garofalo in rehearsal for MARVIN'S ROOM. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: What do you make of Lee’s relationship to her children, Hank and Charlie?

JG: It seems like Lee is exacerbating the problems with her son, Hank. This is a single parent who has struggled and struggled and made bad choices. She knows this and she's her own harshest critic. It's hard for any single parent. It's hard to be a parent period. To do it well is extremely difficult, and to be on your own and economically challenged, that's really difficult. Lee chose a partner who is working against her, to the detriment of her sons. She has enough guilt and anger about her choices without others suggesting she's a terrible parent or a terrible person.

TS: What do you look for from a director?

JG: Any good director knows it's a collaboration. The actors need to feel not only validated and confident, but that they are also in the hands of a man or woman who is absolutely at the top of their game. Even if they're not, they have to pretend that they are. If you're working on network television, it has nothing to do with quality 90 percent of the time, nothing to do with "Let's deal with character. Let's deal with narrative. Let's deal with content." In fact, that is very low on the list of things that are thought about during the day, unfortunately. When you work in television, you realize very quickly that obedience is prized above all. Whereas, when you work in theatre, you have time. Also, everybody comes prepared. Everybody is in service to the whole. You must have the long game in mind, have everybody's best interest in mind. You have to be as generous as possible and listen, listen, listen. Systems work at their best when everybody is pulling for it and working with empathy and intelligence -- both emotional and academic.

TS: Do you have any advice for young people who think they want to be part of show business?

JG: I would say, first of all, really think about why you want to do this. Really, why are you doing this? If it's to become successful, then don't do it, because there's too much pain involved in rejection. Part of the human condition is that we all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. It's a natural impulse. I am a perfect example of that. If I didn't have stand up comedy -- which I find very fulfilling -- I don't know what I'd do because I can control my stand up gigs. I can book them. Part of the beauty of living in New York and being here for many years is you can do stand up every night, if you want. You can find fulfillment. With acting, it's not up to me. I have no control over it. I have to wait to see if anybody is interested in me. It's constant waiting until you have sustained career success. If you have sustained career success, then you have control. If you don't have that -- and 90 percent of SAG actors don't -- it's a waiting, hoping, and rejection game. Also, if you're really serious about acting, stay away from mainstream television and, for the most part, mainstream film because you're not going to be satisfied there. Start doing theatre. Theatre is where you'll become good. That's where you'll get fulfillment, and that's where you're going to work on excellent scripts.

TS: Are there things that inspire you as an artist?

JG: I actually don't call myself an artist. I feel like I haven't achieved that yet. I don't feel like I've earned it. I aspire to be better than I am. I don't mean that in a weird way.

TS: Who is an artist in your mind, then?

JG: Mark Rylance. Not only is his work very subtle, there's no one else that would have done it that way. Obviously, Meryl Streep. I just watched Heartburn this morning at 4:00 a.m. I love that movie. Albert Brooks. Carol Burnett. Norman Lear. Do you remember SCTV with Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short? It was a Canadian sketch show that started in 1975. I would say those people are artists because of their attention to detail, their specificity and the quality of content they create.

TS: Since you've done a variety of work: stand-up comedy, television, radio, plays -- what haven't you done that you still want to do?

JG: I hope that in the future I have the opportunity to work with certain people. I am not saying I deserve this, but I would love to be in a Coen Brothers film or a Woody Allen movie. I would like to work with Lena Dunham. I've gotten a chance to audition for the Coen Brothers before. That was a thrill of a lifetime. I've gotten the chance to audition for “Girls,” which was also thrilling. I would like to have those opportunities again because I think that they write great stuff. I would also love to be on a British detective series or any Masterpiece Theatre classic or contemporary thing. That is a dream. I'm a bit of an anglophile, especially TV-wise. I would love to work with Armando Iannucci. I would love to work with Steve Coogan. Also, to live in England and work for the BCC would be a joy. They're all high-brow ideas, aren't they? Classy, I'm real classy.

Marvin's Room begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on June 8. For tickets and info, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room

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