Marvin’s Room follows a family trying to take care of an elderly father, Marvin, who has had multiple strokes. The caregivers themselves struggle with their own issues: Bessie is dying of leukemia, Aunt Ruth has three collapsed vertebrae, and Lee has a troublesome teenager on her hands. Understandably, this does not sound like a conventional set-up for a laugh-out-loud comedy, but Marvin’s Room is just that. In 1992, in their review of the play, the New York Times commented, “Is there any chance you will believe me when I tell you that ‘Marvin’s Room’ is one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving? Maybe not. And that’s how it should be. When the American theater gains a new voice this original, this unexpected, you really must hear it for yourself.”
There was much clamor over the originality of McPherson’s voice because it signaled a new, innately American comedic tone for a play. In the same Times review, critic Frank Rich conceded that McPherson had inspiration in absurdist comedy (for example, Eugene Ionesco) but opined that “‘Marvin’s Room’ is most decidedly not a soap [opera] itself. Nor is it a pitch-black gallows farce in the British mode of Joe Orton or Peter Nichols…the play is just too American to subscribe to European cynicism. It sees life as it is and how it could be, and it somewhat optimistically imagines how one might bridge that distance without ever sentimentalizing the truth.”
By the time McPherson wrote Marvin’s Room, the roots of this distinctly American blending of tragedy and comedy in a family drama had already taken root in American plays. These earlier American plays tended to be much more directly influenced by the European absurdist tradition, but with an American flavor. The Marriage of Bette & Boo by Christopher Durang, for example, explored the author’s own parents’ marriage in a much more overtly satirical and absurdist way. However, the seamless blending of seriousness and comedy is present there, with the New Yorker review reasoning that Durang “has perfected the art of turning bitterness into comedy without losing its edge.” What separated McPherson, however, was the lightheartedness of his comedy - edge was not his endgame.
After McPherson, other authors explored this approach to grief within a family structure through tragicomedy. Nicky Silver, a year later, wrote Pterodactyls, which similarly used comedy to play with serious family drama. Even more so, in 2011 Silver wrote The Lyons, where a family gathers at a hospital where the patriarch lies dying from cancer. Despite the setting, the play is replete with laughs.
So in the face of horrible catastrophe, why write something light-hearted? To McPherson, life was rarely all wonderful or all terrible -- it was everything at once. As we witness in Bessie’s journey through the medical system, even cancer treatment can lead to laughs. By allowing these contrasting highs and lows to come together on stage, Marvin’s Room gives us an unflinching glimpse of a heightened version of our own reality. As Laura Esterman, who played Bessie in the play’s original production, has said, the piece is “so impossible to describe to people...I tell people, 'I'm playing this character who's dying of leukemia, and it's such a wonderful, funny play.' Then they just look at me strangely." And it’s that reaction, that sense of walking an emotional tightrope, that makes the play so delightfully (and sadly) unique.
Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room