Mamie Gummer, Michael C. Hall, and company in Mr. Marmalade
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Mamie Gummer, Michael C. Hall, and company in Mr. Marmalade
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Who'd want a friend like Mr. Marmalade? He drinks too much, is abusive, gets high on cocaine, and is never around when you need him. Still, he's the most important person in four-year-old Lucy's life -- even if he's only imaginary. Noah Haidle's dark comedy Mr. Marmalade has a terrific premise and some hilarious moments but, unfortunately, doesn't quite fulfill its potential.

Lucy (played by adult actress Mamie Gummer) is the only child of a single mother. She's used to being alone, but that doesn't mean she likes it. Mr. Marmalade (Michael C. Hall, best known as David Fisher on TV's Six Feet Under) is often too busy to visit her, and instead sends his personal assistant, Bradley (David Costabile), in his place. Things start to change with the arrival of five-year-old Larry (Pablo Schreiber), the stepbrother of Lucy's babysitter's boyfriend. The girl now has a flesh-and-blood playmate with whom she can engage in games of House and Doctor. This doesn't sit too well with Mr. Marmalade.

Haidle walks a tight line between playfulness and depravity. His child characters are not only portrayed by adults, they also act like them; they talk about and take part in sexual activity, use foul language, and discuss such matters as suicide and abortion. The playwright heavy-handedly addresses issues of abuse, loss of innocence, and the adult-oriented world in which kids are raised. While his wicked sense of humor adds irony and bite to his critiques, the main points are made early on and then are reiterated over and over in a play that has far too many endings for its own good.

Gummer is terrific in an extremely demanding role, balancing her high-pitched girlish voice and mannerisms with a real sense of Lucy's deep-seated loneliness. Hall is quirkily charming and has some very funny moments, but he indicates a lot of his character's actions and intentions, which spoils his characterization. Costabile is excellent as the reserved yet chipper Bradley, who apologizes for his employer's faults while showing genuine care and concern for Lucy. Schreiber pushes too hard, exaggerating Larry's childishness. Virginia Louise Smith and Michael Chernus, each playing a trio of roles, are fine and occasionally quite funny.

Director Michael Greif highlights the farcical nature of the play, which may account for some of the actors' difficulties in grounding their performances. It's certainly appropriate for this work to be played in an exaggerated style, but a somewhat lighter touch might have been more effective.

The kaleidoscopic floral patterns on the rounded walls of Allen Moyer's set establish the tone of the production nicely. Constance Hoffman's costumes are hit and miss: the black suits for Mr. Marmalade and Bradley work well, but the somewhat garish costumes for Lucy and Larry are less effective. Kevin Adams' lighting design helps the transitions between light-hearted whimsy and the show's darker moments; so do Michael Friedman's original compositions, coupled with Walter Trarbach and Tony Smolenski IV's sound design.

Anyone who's ever played with an imaginary friend or concocted elaborate make-believe scenarios about one's future life will appreciate the play's compressed time frame, wherein changes occur with alarming speed. But a clever concept can't carry the show. Mr. Marmalade is somewhat frustrating because it's clear that it could have been much better than it is. Still, there's enough that's good about this production to make it worth seeing, though you might want to leave the kids at home.