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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Mr. Marmalade’

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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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Mr. Marmalade’"

jamie says:

I agree with most of this review. It is another example of a modern playwright trying to be absurdist and relevant and funny and dark and orignal all at the same time. As i watched the show I saw a different imaginary person, a smug, self important writer smiling over his latte while he wrote this script at Starbucks. I thought the production was well conceived and the acting strong. I especially like Burkelee Woods and his singing/creepiness. The production work was fine, but when you can choose as freely as college theatre profs can, why choose this?

Nathan says:

Im going to have to disagree with Mr. Munro on this one. As challenging as the material is , i think the entire cast and crew rose to the challenge. The play is a satire about society and its relative dissolutionment. This play wasnt about “literal” children and us not giving them credit for intelligence. This was about “us”….”society as a whole”. This was a comment on how we now see the world, not through the Rose colored glasses of our Mothers and Fathers, but through the “grey, “opaque” matter that clouds our vision today…I thought this play showed a complexity that you just dont get in theatre these days…its not a shiny, happy ending piece…and its not meant to be…As good as all the cast was, there was one standout in my opinion, and thats Melissa Booey as Lucy….she carried the piece on her shoulders as Mr. munro stated…..No other actress of her age or experience could have done this….she was quite brilliant. I cant wait to, one day, see her win that first Tony….I appreciate Mr. Munro’s opinion, and think highly of his work in general, but in this particular review, he missed the whole point and the i have to respectfully diagree with his conclusions…..

Heather P. says:

I thought it a well-executed production overall. At times, I felt buoyant and lighthearted and other times it inspired frustration and sadness in me. At one point I nearly yelled back at the actors. That it brought forth spontaneous responses from me is a testament to its success as a whole. Trust me, it doesn’t happen as often as I would like in the theater these days!