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A CurtainUp Review
Mr. Marmalade

How do I look? --- Sookie
Easy. ---Lucy, the four-year-old with an outlandishly adult vocabulary and fantasy life, to her divorced mother about to go on one of the many dates that leave Lucy alone with a not always responsible baby sitter.

Michael C. Hall
(Photo:Joan Marcus)
If you've always associated marmalade with sweetness, you're likely to expect the title character of Noah Haidle's play to be a sweet, lovable guy -- just the sort of imaginary friend for a four-year-old moppet named Lucy.

Well, think again. Playwright Haidle's Mr. Marmalade is a cocaine snorting, emotionally out to lunch businessman with a briefcase packed with kinky sex toys. Not a friend likely to offer much solace for little Lucy's loneliness and confusion as a child of divorce with too much access to adult television shows. But then Lucy, who with her tutu and pajamas get-up may seem like a new version of the famous cartoon Lucy, is a thoroughly new-fangled precocious and troubled toddler.

There are several reasons to raise hopes about seeing the play to which the Roundabout has commited considerable resources even though it's not the sort of sure-fire revival so dear to its subscribers' hearts. Mr. Marmalade's author is a young Princeton graduate much touted as an up and coming playwright. The title character is played by Michael Hall, an experienced stage actor best known for his TV gig, Six Feet Under, and Little Lucy markes the debut of Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's twenty-something daughter. It's also directed by Michael Greif, and designed by a Class A+ crafts team.

I'm thus saddened to report that Haidle's theme, has potential but its execution is unworthy of the money and talent that's been invested in this New York premiere. Unlike a carefully simmered and preserved marmalade for people with fine taste, Haidle has over-seasoned his concoction with cutesy, cartoon flavoring and allowed his ideas to boil over into a cheap, unappetizing mess.

What Haidle is apparently after is a serio-comic exploration of the prevalence of dysfunctional family situations and how very young children process their own traumas through observations fed by what they witness in their surroundings and on television. To differentiate his story from by now standard dysfunctional family dramas, he decided to channel his observation through the viewpoint of a four-year-old who is traumatized by her parents' divorce and the daily abandonment while her mother works or is out on dates that invariably end up in her bedroom.

Any play in which adults assume children's role is immediately prone to syrupy cutesiness. Mr. Marmalade, while not syrupy, is cutesy and cartoonish. To make it work as a dark comedy calls for a sophistication and psychological insights that Mr. Haidle has not yet achieved.

Having Lucy's fantasy life based on grim and very adult reality with a creepy character who's more like a child molester than an imaginary friend, while an interesting concept, simply doesn't ring true. It ends up being an over-extended, gimmick culminated by a moment of garish excess that has Lucy playing a ketchup and kitsch Medea scene. Consequently, nothing that happens arouses any sympathetic feelings for lonely little Lucy or her one friend Larry (Pablo Schreiber, Liev's younger brother). A year older than Lucy, Larry is another abused child who introduces two more imaginary friends, also played by adults (Michael Chernus and Virginia Louis Smith dressed up as humanoid plants).

We leave the Roundabout's handsome Second Stage without any new insights about the adults who represent these kids' awful world. As for the positive note struck at the end, for anyone who's a parent, there's nothing new in the the idea that children are survivors and that parents will always have a second chance to make them happy.

The production is colorful and handsome, and the actors do their best to rise above the material given them. Gummer, if her resemblance to her talented mom can be taken as an indication, probably has the potential to act a lot better than allowed for by this role, especially with director Greif doing little to discourage her from pitching Lucy's squeaky little-girl voice as high as possible. Greif's overall direction also doesn't keep the ninety minutes from seeming endless, with even a fruit loop food fight and Lucy and Larry doctor games seeming more stretched out than genuinely funny. Schreiber, who at first is almost painful to watch, eventually comes close to capturing the big guy as little guy personality called for. Hall brings the right degree of creepy-crawly weirdness to the decidedly unsweet Mr. Marmalade though one can't help wondering why he chose to spend his limited time for working on stage on this play.

David Costabile stands out as an abused underling to Mr. Marmalade and has one of the more stageworthy moments singing "La Vie En Rose" as Mr. M and Lucy enjoy a festive restaurant dinner during one of their happier fantasy dates. Virginia Louise Smith and Michael Chernus do heroic triple duty -- she as Lucy's mom, baby sitter and a Sunflower; he as the absent dad, one of mom's dates and a cactus plant.

Each of the six scenes is introduced with a long title projected on the upstage wall. The penultimate of these foreshadowing bits of introductory text tells us that we will now find out "what happened to Lucy and Mr. Marmalade . . . which may be very difficult to watch for the squeamish." . . .  and which leads me to warn you that practically everything about this not ready for prime time comedy may be difficult to watch for anyone with a taste for well thought through, grounded in credibility comedies.

Playwright: Noah Haidle.
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Michael Chernus, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Michael C. Hall, Pablo Schreiber, Virginia Louise Smith.
Set Design: Allen Moyer.
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach & Tony Smolenski IV
Original Composition: Michael Friedman
Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels, 111 West 46th Street212-719-1300
From 11/01/05 to 1/29/06; opening 11/20/05
Tue - Sat at 7:30pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm
Tickets: $51.25 - $61.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 22nd performance
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