July 26, 2017

Reporting From Broadway

Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Marvin's Room. Joan Marcus. (click for larger version)
Rediscovering Scott McPherson's iconic comedy, in this first Broadway production of Marvin's Room at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, is eventful in and of itself. Writing during the AIDS epidemic, McPherson captured catastrophic times with a sense of levity, demonstrating a bountiful gift for writing natural dialogue and unique, well-rounded characters. Sadly, he succumbed to his own struggle with AIDS shortly after he wrote this play.

Here it is brilliantly cast with Lili Taylor as Bessie and Janeane Garofalo as her sister, Lee. The two connect after decades of separation when Bessie, diagnosed with leukemia, seeks a bone marrow donor to save her life.

Taylor ("Six Feet Under," "American Crime"), who can come across as really weird and quirky, plays the central character with a sense of maturity and earnestness that is a pleasure to see, and which attests to her range as an actor. And for those who imagine that Garofalo is just a comedian, a wonderful surprise awaits you. Her Lee lives somewhere off the curve of the condonable middle class. And while her teenage son pays for his misbehavior in a mental institution, she busies herself with church work, leaving her little time to attend to him, or his younger brother, Charlie (Luca Padovan). Living in her bubble, she barely connects with the responsibilities of life, acting out a pattern of rejection to which she is as bound as Sisyphus.

Meanwhile, Taylor's Bessie is a benevolent loving woman in the midst of family disorder and disease, who takes care of everyone. She even achieves a beautiful rapport with her supposedly insane nephew, Hank, sensitively portrayed by Jack DiFalco. And Celia Weston plays Ruth, the aunt who is wired to painkillers. So wired, in fact, that she sets off the electric garage door. McPherson whimsically juggles the real and the unreal, the sick and the inane.

The Government Inspector

Michael Urie works himself to the bone, pretending to be The Government Inspector in this adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's play, currently at New World Stages. And his work pays off, in a hilarious physical farce about the zeitgeist, in which bribery, blackmail, and sloth are de rigueur.

In fact, Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of The Government Inspector, a satire about the petty corruption of mid-19th century Tsarist Russia, takes no prisoners. It could as easily be set in contemporary small-town America as in the provincial Russia. And as directed by Jesse Berger, the characters verge on the grotesque. Blinded by their lust for power, they literally collide into one another, until they ultimately entrap themselves. Paced as a slapstick farce, the production is high on silliness.

Among the outstanding actors in this production, Arnie Burton portrays the postmaster who reads everyone's mail, and even keeps some (love notes, specifically) for himself. Burton also doubles as Urie's servant, a ragged sluggard, who, like the others, is just out for himself.

In the role of the mayor's wife, Mary Testa bears an upper-crust attitude that is stuffed with pride and self-importance. Impressing Ivan (Urie) with her love of literature, she brags, "Nom de plume is my favorite author." Meanwhile, her pretenses are wasted on a poseur, as Ivan is no more than a low-level government clerk.

Michael McGrath sustains his sense of empowerment and puffery as her husband, the mayor, who is in cahoots with his corrupt cronies – the local businessmen. Like recognizable political figures of today, he is a narcissistic buffoon. And the landowners Bobchinsky and Dobchinksy, Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl, are like the two mismatched tinhorns, Mutt and Jeff. The comic duo hits a chord that characterizes the underlying cartoonish nature of these characters, and their self-serving mores. To that end, the costumes by Tilly Grimes are fanciful, reflecting and revealing the characters' greedy, ostentatious nature.

With Alexis Distler's double-decker set, divided into three distinct spaces, one views the characters' antics through various lenses – from the privacy of a room in an inn, to a sitting room in the mayor's home, to a meeting among comrades. For Michael Urie, the set is like a trampoline as he squirrels his way from one level to the next, hurling himself from scene to scene, chasing his tail – or should that be, his tale.

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