I walked away from Fresno City College’s “Mr. Marmalade” lukewarm about the show. I kept thinking I should have liked it a lot more than I did.
After all, it’s the kind of production that usually pushes my buttons: Noah Haidle’s spanking new comedy (it hit Off-Broadway in 2005) about a 4-year-old girl and her twisted imaginary friend blends elements of absurdism and pointed cultural commentary into an upbeat, slightly non-traditional form; the scenic design is decidedly non-realistic; the humor is savagely dark. (Looking for an example of a twisted childhood? This girl conjures an emotionally distant companion addicted to cocaine and booze who works too hard and beats his personal assistant.) Yet the production fell short for me. Despite a couple of standout acting performances, “Mr. Marmalade” by the end felt inflated and smug, as if the playwright tried just a little too hard.
You can tell director Janine Christl meticulously prepared her actors for the production. That helped when it came to the toughest roles, played by Melissa Booey, who portrays the 4-year-old Lucy, and Kai Di Mino as the 5-year-old Larry, who notes he’s the youngest suicide survivor in New Jersey. The script calls for actors in their 20s to play these small children. In a more standard play, this requirement would probably result in the usual temptation to be overly cloying and exaggeratedly juvenile. In this case, however, Haidle’s storyline calls for these young adults to mouth sophisticated dialogue and sardonic grown-up musings while still retaining a sense of youthful physicality and childlike innocence.
Of the two, Di Mino is exceptional. (He gets the easier job, really, because he’s on stage for shorter, more concentrated periods of time, compared to Booey’s Lucy, who has to carry the play’s entire premise on her shoulders.) He’s particularly strong in his opening meeting with Lucy — his older brother dragged his character over for a tryst with Lucy’s babysitter (appealingly played by Jennifer Beatty) — as he projects a fascinating, indeterminable netherworld between childhood and adulthood.
Jochebed Smith and Cameron Chandler turn in boisterous performances as the play’s slightly more conventional conjured playmates. Nick Haas, a FCC veteran, has a lot of fun finding the weird shadings of his Mr. Marmalade imaginary-friend character — a guy who emerges from the oversized sofa in Lucy’s living room — as he behaves at times like a solicitous playmate and others like a prime candidate for couples therapy.
Yet as the play rolls along, there’s a divergence between how funny the idea of Mr. Marmalade is and his actual character. I can speculate at some of the deeper issues that Haidle was trying to tap into with this play — a sense that small children are much more knowing and mature than we give them credit for, and that while they don’t always recognize the big-picture details of a situation, they’re often keenly attuned to its emotional sophistication — but the point gets made over and over. There’s only so many times when the dissonance of a little kid spouting about abusive relationships can have a desired impact before the joke begins to weigh thin.
Christopher R. Boltz’s wacky set, with its forced perspective (the backdrop narrows into a sliver of stage boasting a tiny TV) and oversized furniture, goes a way toward capturing the offbeat nature of the play, but even it seems a little generic. (I usually admire Boltz’s designs, but there’s something about this one — even as revels in its blatant non-realism — that makes it seem kind of bland.) Perhaps this was one script that no amount of production magic or careful direction could really make work.