It's easy to pity someone dying of a painful disease. In the theater, it's too easy. When disease is the subject of a play, it almost always becomes a substitute for dramatic structure--a built-in twister of heart-strings and manipulator of our personal and public fears.

There are, of course, important exceptions. But Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room, now in its Denver premiere at the Theatre on Broadway, is not one of them. Despite a fine cast capable of squeezing every ounce of intelligence and humor out of this dark comedy, despite a few actual insights about love and kindness, the play remains more manipulative than moving, appealing to our fears of death rather than bringing much light to the great problem of life--a task that it so earnestly purports to do.

Bessie has cared for her handicapped Aunt Ruth and her aged father, debilitated by a stroke, for many years. As the play opens, Bessie learns she herself has leukemia, and that the prescribed treatment requires a bone-marrow transplant. She sends for her sister Lee and her two nephews--whom she has never seen--to serve as possible donors. The older boy, Hank, has been incarcerated in a mental institution for arson, but once we meet his mother, the mystery of his bad behavior is solved.

Aunt Bessie understands her teenage nephew because she takes the trouble to listen to him. She has spent her life caring for others, and, despite her own illness, opens her heart to their suffering. She realizes Hank is a good boy while his own mother doesn't--not surprising, since Lee is as stupid as she is self-absorbed. Still, Lee has some residual humanity, and though the sisters argue a bit, they try to get along.

The inky humor of Marvin's Room makes the play intermittently bearable. A bungling doctor with a very questionable sense of hygiene and a goofy laugh parodies the bad experiences everyone has had with health care. When Bessie has to go to the hospital, Aunt Ruth can't bear to tell Bessie's dad, Marvin, so she convinces him that the practical nurse is a hallucination. A psychiatrist listens to Lee berate her troubled son, and when the witch leaves, tells him confidently, "Well, that was a good session."

There is also something to be said for the patience and kindness of the long-suffering Bessie, who has found meaning in caring for two aging invalids. Bessie is an unusual character for the theater. In a rare moment of communication with her sister, Bessie lets Lee know how much a life of love has meant, how lucky she is to have loved so much. It is the only truly moving moment in the play because it sheds light on the woman's life and reason for being.

Deborah Persoff's interpretation of Bessie is filled with nuances of gentility and layered with emotional truth. Though the character McPherson has given her to work with is very limited, Persoff's performance is remarkably intense. Josh Stacey as the rebellious, troubled Hank creates a nucleus of tenderness within the hard crust of his delinquency, turning a weak role into a strong presence. In one powerful moment, he and Persoff are remarkable together as she confronts him about his own choices.

The relationship between Bessie and Lee, however, is less successful. Susan d'Autremont gives a fine, natural performance as the despicable-turned-kindly Lee, but she and Persoff never achieve the intimacy that would be expected of sisters, estranged or not--a crucial failing that is no doubt the fault of the writing.

Rick Silverman is hilarious as the bumbling Dr. Wally. Marian Rowan makes the bent Aunt Ruth a warm and interesting old woman. Trina Magness grates on our nerves--as well she should--as both the irritating psychiatrist and the bubbleheaded retirement home director.

In the end, it's the play, not the acting, that's the problem. I realize I am treading on sacred ground here: Marvin's Room won the 1992 New York Drama Desk Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Play, and received rapturous acclaim from a variety of important critics. But then it's easy to mistake pity for compassion--and the inherently sad circumstances of a terminal illness for the drama of revelation.

Marvin's Room, through June 4 at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 777-3292.

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