Except for one thing, one crucial element, this would be Jerry Springer on steroids, a ménage á schlock involving coke addiction, childhood pregnancy and personal assistant abuse.
Here is the crucial element which turns Mr. Marmalade into outrageous comedy: the heroine, Lucy (Rebecca Vail) is only four years old. And her coke-snorting, p.a.-slapping boyfriend, Mr. Marmalade (Derek Yale) is a product of her imagination.
The conceit which drives Noah Haidle’s short play is that a child’s imaginary friend – a figure so commonplace as to approach cliché – is a workaholic drug addict who lies constantly to her in order to weasel out of her (quite adult) demands. “Why don’t you touch me any more?” four-year-old Lucy shockingly asks her imaginary playmate five minutes into their imaginary coffee. Like every pathetic victim in every pathetic dysfunctional relationship on the daytime soaps, Lucy makes up excuses for Mr. Marmalade, as does Mr. Marmalade’s imaginary personal assistant Bradley (Timothy R. King). Lucy briefly throws her imaginary playmate over for a real friend, 5-year-old Larry (J.W. Crump), who is, he proudly tells her, the youngest attempted suicide in the history of New Jersey. But when Larry reacts badly to Lucy’s imaginary pregnancy, she gives him the boot and re-welcomes Mr. Marmalade and his imaginary entourage into her life. Better the devil you know, I guess.
When this delicate conceit works the whole play works, and scenes like the one in which Mr. Marmalade, freshly back from imaginary rehab, dances with Lucy as his imaginary personal assistant sings French songs and imaginary musicians (Brian J. Hoyle and Dannielle Hutchinson) play triangles are almost unspeakably hilarious. But in order for the conceit to work the cast must perform with absolute fidelity to the text, making their characters everything Haidle intended them to be. Vail and Crump are superb as the youngsters, but the rest of Dark Horse’s cast range from very good (King) to notso hotso. As a result, the production is only adequate.
Let’s talk about how terrific Vail and Crump are for a while. Since it’s hard to find a good child actor (I’ve seen three in D.C. over the last five years), an adult actor who can convincingly act as a child is a godsend to any company. Vail and Crump are both such godsends. An adult in a child’s role must be the child with his whole body, for every moment that he is on stage. The hands must fidget unselfconsciously; emotions must play across the face without artifice or concealment, and frustration – the most common experience of any small child – must bubble up to the surface on a regular basis. Vail and Crump fulfill their missions completely, and thus nail their characters. They never let us forget who they are, and as a result we are completely engaged with them in exactly the way the playwright intended. When Larry slinks off after being dismissed by Lucy, he carries our hearts with him and that, brothers and sisters, is acting.
The production gets some help from actors in supporting roles, too. King delivers the goods as the slavish personal assistant, and both Rachel Gray, as Lucy’s mom, and Amanda Spellman, as her baby-sitter, are amusingly trashy in brief appearances. (Gray’s New Jersey accent is wonderful.) On the other hand, Hoyle and Hutchison are both over the top – Hoyle annoyingly so, in multiple roles. Their noisy performances disturb the enchantment which Haidle, Vail and Crump have laid down for us, and jar us back to reality unpleasantly.
Yale as Mr. Marmalade is the biggest disappointment, though. Mr. Marmalade is written to be full of sex and danger – Michael C. Hall, of “Dexter” fame, played him in the play’s New York debut at the Roundabout – but Yale brings none of that to the table. He seems like a tax accountant – a nasty tax accountant, to be sure, but not the nightmare-boat Haidle means him to be. There is no Vail-Yale chemistry, and thus the audience is made indifferent to many portions of the play which should be powerful, including the climax.
Notwithstanding some unfortunate performances, director Natasha Parnian moves things along crisply, and Brian Ferrell and Karen Schlumpf in particular deserve kudos for staging some convincing fights in DCAC’s tiny performance space.
It should not escape our note that theater itself is about imaginary friends – friends like Hamlet, Walter Lee Younger, and Hedda Gabler – who become as real to us as Mr. Marmalade becomes to Lucy. To the extent that Dark Horse’s production achieves that ambition for its characters, it succeeds.
By Noah Haidle
Directed by Natasha Parnian
Produced by Dark Horse Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Mr. Marmalade plays thru Oct 30, 2010 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC.
For tickets, call 202-462-7833