The difficulty in reviewing Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room is knowing how much consideration to give to the playwright's personal life. The cast of the production at Phoenix Little Theatre wore red ribbons at the curtain call, pointing out to audience members--if they hadn't already read it in the program--that Marvin's Room is about AIDS and that the playwright himself died as a result of it in 1992, a year after the show opened in New York.

The play itself, however, gave no intimation that it was about anything more than a woman approaching middle age who is diagnosed with leukemia and tries to improve her relationship with her sister.

At the age of 40, Bessie is a drudge who has spent a good deal of her adult life looking after her crazy aunt and her bedridden and incoherent father, Marvin. She is especially saintly when compared to her strident and opinionated sister, the mother of two dysfunctional sons. Bessie can connect with the elder son, Hank, ostensibly mentally ill but seeming to suffer more from the constant harping of his overbearing mother.

The play went about its business in two modes--funny, wisecracking one-liners and emotional confrontation. The one-liners produced chuckles like a TV sitcom, often not having much to do with the plot or characters.

The characters themselves never graduated from being symbols to being real people. I kept waiting for Bessie to rail against fate, but the most she ever says is how much love she has felt. Her sister Lee finally concludes she ought to support Bessie more, but after an emotional scene in the kitchen at midnight, her assistance amounts to restyling Bessie's wig into a parody of a 1950s mom.

The play's strangest device is the presence of the father, Marvin, in a bed behind an opaque glass screen. Theatre practice has it that if you hang a gun on the wall at the beginning of Act One, the audience feels cheated if it isn't used by the end of the play. We expect that Marvin will reveal himself in some more enlightening way as the piece reaches its climax. But he never does--except at the curtain call, when the audience sees that a real actor has had the thankless task of lying behind a wall for two hours, moaning every once in a while. Marvin as a hovering specter of death made a heavy-handed point that the audience had grasped and tuned out early on.

Actresses Kathy Fitzgerald as Bessie and Lisa Fineberg Malone as Lee were last seen onstage together in The Kathy and Mo Show. The chemistry between the two didn't work as well here, because of the difficulty in determining just what the chemistry was supposed to be. Malone as Lee seemed to have the greater problem in getting a handle on her character, and relied on posturing and a tough-as-nails faade that had little underneath. Fitzgerald as Bessie could never fight with her sister--being a living saint and all--so the two ended up directing their lines at, rather than to, each other, never achieving real emotional connection. The conclusion of Marvin's Room provided little satisfaction despite a lot of promises, the situation with the father, the crazy aunt and the mentally ill nephew still unresolved. Toward the end of the play, the scenes became briefer and more symbolic, a stylistic device that seemed to indicate the playwright was taking the easy way out. Providing biographical data about a playwright in the evening's program is standard practice, but I couldn't help feeling a boundary had been trespassed when the actors made an overt statement about the AIDS crisis while taking their bows. Plays aren't memorials, and the curtain call is an inappropriate time to champion a cause.

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Kathleen Ellison