I was baffled when Nearly Naked Theatre announced earlier this year that it planned to open its season with Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room. McPherson's dramedy tells a story that, despite some gallows humor and a better-than-competent script, isn't more challenging than your average Lifetime Movie of the Week. The play's underlying message -- that it takes an open mind and a strong will to overcome life's meanest challenges -- is tucked into a bittersweet domestic tale of Middle American misfits who are dealing with standard-issue struggles with ill health and troubled teenagers. Hardly the sort of stuff we've come to expect from Nearly Naked, a company we count on for controversy and envelope-pushing theatrics.
This time, it's serving up tamer fiction. Bessie (Lori Winzeler) is a middle-aged spinster who for years has been caring for her invalid, elderly father (William Parker, who's offstage throughout) and senile Aunt Ruth (Barbara McGrath). When Bessie is stricken with leukemia, her estranged sister Lee (Trish Galindo) and Lee's two teenaged sons (Adrian Villalpando, Eric Zaklukiewicz), one of whom has been living in a mental institution, are sent for with the hope that one of them will be a donor match for Bessie's bone-marrow transplant.
The story is awash in tender moments and halfhearted reconciliations and occasional laughs that, on the night I saw the show, kept tripping up the audience, probably because McPherson's comedy is trampled by all the drama here. It doesn't help that much of the humor is just plain pedestrian. Endless references to bowel movements -- referred to here as "making stinky," which is even less funny than just saying "shit," for example -- and the fact that old auntie's electronic implant causes the garage door to randomly open just aren't all that funny.
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The Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road
Continues through September 17. Call 602-274-2432.
Fortunately, there's some real acting going on in this production, which is nicely directed by Stray Cat Theatre's Ron May. The cast is anchored by Galindo and McGrath, who is once again playing an addled old lady and who, as always, is utterly delightful to behold. Galindo adds some real depth to Lee, who (as written, at least) is little more than another sassy hillbilly hairdresser with kid trouble and little self-esteem. She's utterly believable as both a short-tempered, bitchy mom attempting conversation with her troubled son and as a compassionate rebel who wants to reach out to her sorrowful sister.
Villalpando brings the proper balance of angst and adrenaline to his performance as the disturbed teenager, Hank, but Winzeler's reading of Bessie is as phony as the post-chemo wigs she wears in Act Two. It's this performance of the character at the center of this occasionally maudlin story that keeps Marvin's Room from being anything better than a pleasant diversion.