It’s been two decades since Lili Taylor’s first and last appearance on Broadway — in a production of “The Three Sisters” featuring Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Calista Flockhart and Billy Crudup — and how we’ve missed her.
Taylor has done solid, understated work in movies like “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Brooklyn’s Finest” and TV shows like ABC’s canceled-too-soon “American Crime.” And she brings that almost visceral sense of empathy to a heartfelt revival of “Marvin’s Room,” Scott McPherson’s elegiac 1991 drama that opened Thursday at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.
Taylor plays Bessie, the middle-aged caretaker daughter of a long failing father, the unseen Marvin, and Marvin’s sister Ruth (the delightfully loopy Celia Weston), who suffers from chronic pain that has recently been tamed by an electronic gadget that also accidentally opens the garage door of the house they share in Florida.
McPherson, who was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after completing the script, had a keen sense of family dynamics and the need for pitch-black humor in the face of tragedy — a balance that finely maintained in the hands of director Anne Kaufman in this revival.
“He’s been dying for about 20 years,” Bessie tells her doctor early on about her father. “He’s doing it real slow so I don’t miss anything.”
Soon, Bessie too falls ill — diagnosed with the leukemia that claimed her mother when she was a girl. And so she calls on her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), and Lee’s two sons, the troubled teen Hank (Jack DiFalco) and bookish Charlie (Luca Padovan) — ostensibly to be tested to see if they might be bone marrow matches.
It may be the most selfish act of this preternaturally selfless woman, who seems to be defined by her recessiveness. Even in her exasperation when Ruth forgets to give Marvin his medicine, Taylor’s Bessie can barely raise her voice. And sitting on an amusement park bench with Hank late in the play, she manages the remarkable trick of commanding the stage while seeming not to take up any space. Taylor is the rare actor who seems to shrug off her charisma while never actually letting it go.
Lee, meanwhile, is an edgier, more calculating soul, a single mom putting herself through cosmetology school and struggling to keep her delinquent eldest in check after he (accidentally?) burned down their house. And Garofalo brings a spiky energy to her performance that’s just right.
She’s not anyone’s first choice to take over Bessie’s role as family caregiver — and yet by the end of McPherson’s remarkably structured play, there’s the hint of a possibility that she might be able to rise to such a challenge.
“Marvin’s Room” concludes much as New Yorker short stories of the early ’90s did, elliptically. That open-endedness no doubt seemed a comfort in an era in which death was both pervasive and inescapably final.