“I guess I just prefer to see the dark side of things,” Janeane Garofalo once famously remarked when asked to define her sense of humor. “The glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth.”
That outlook has served the comedian well since 1985 in standup gigs, on television (The West Wing, The Larry Sanders Show), and in film (Reality Bites, The Truth About Cats & Dogs). Now she brings her gleefully dark outlook to the American Airlines Theatre, where she just made her Broadway debut in Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room. She plays Lee, a flip, flinty, free spirit with two teenage sons—one a hellion, the other bookish—who have come from Ohio to Orlando to see if any of them qualify for a bone-marrow transplant for her long-estranged sister, Bessie (Lili Taylor), who otherwise will die of leukemia.
McPherson’s play premiered at Chicago’s Goodman in 1990, before playing an Off-Broadway run and being adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonard DiCaprio. He wrote it before he contracted AIDS, basing it on his experiences caretaking for elderly relatives and his partner, cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor. Thus, he speaks with some authority about finding unexpected laughs in life’s grim travail.
Director Anne Kaufman, Garofalo says, encouraged the cast to play against the emotions of the play, not to give in to or underline them. “I don‘t think it would work if you hit the sadder qualities or the more absurdist comedic qualities over the head. You just want to get to the truth of it and let that unfold.”
A Greenwich Villager for decades, Garofalo only recently took on theatre. In Erika Sheffer’s 2012 Russian Transport, she made her Off-Broadway bow as Sarah Steele’s domineering mother and did such a good job that she played Steele’s mother again in the recent film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate.
“I’ll play Sarah Steele’s mom anytime, anywhere,” she insists. “I’m a big fan of pretending to be other people’s mom. I myself have never wanted to be a mother.”
So here she is in Marvin’s Room, a mother again—taking it seriously enough to stop all her standup for the duration. When she hits the road again, her comedy should be even better, she figures. “It’s good to take these little breaks, just to refresh and restart. You can get in a rut. It’s nice to get out of the rhythm of doing it and find out what you loved about it in the first place.”