Often the best way to understand, or simply figure out, a play that leaves you baffled, annoyed, irritated, and repulsed is to simply write down what you remember. There is always the hope that a bit of insight will surface to help penetrate what seems at first (and to the end, in this case) to be an insufferable mess. That is my reaction to the dark humored, grotesquely conceived dramatic conceit titled Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle, about whom a recent press release informs me is "one of the country’s hottest young playwrights." It was issued by Princeton University where alumnus Haidle recently had its premiere. The press release that came as part of my critic’s information for Mr. Marmalade calls the play "outrageous." Okay. So, Haidle is hot and Mr. Marmalade is outrageous. I’m adventurous.
Lucy is only four years old, but she is very precocious for her age despite her lack of style. She has on a tutu over her pajamas as she prepares an elegant tea party for a guest. She is so precocious that she can rattle off the names of a dozen exotic teas as well as prepare cucumber sandwiches for Mr. Marmalade, the gentleman in a business suit and carrying a briefcase who steps into the living room where Lucy is playing. He has just returned from a business trip to Peru. Lucy’s relationship with Mr. Marmalade is quickly seen as being slightly provocative, as he is obviously an adult. There is tension in the air as Lucy asks him, "Why don’t you touch me any more? Do you promise you’re not cheating on me? My imagination goes wild." What is going on here, we ask ourselves? Okay, we get it. Here is a neglected child who is filling the void left by an absentee father, perhaps even imagining him as her husband.
Lucy’s mother, Sookie, enters the room and, of course, doesn’t see anyone but Lucy, whose imagination we are beginning to see is indeed wild. Sookie is gussied up and preparing to out on a date. "How do I look," she asks? "Easy," answers snippy Lucy. Sookie has arranged for Emily, the teenage sitter, to come over. Emily’s repulsive teenage boyfriend, George, also pops over with Larry, his geeky-five year-old brother. Emily and George disappear for what-have-you as Larry and Lucy appear to hit it off, especially when Larry tells her he is suicidal and shows her his bandaged wrists. That’s not all that he shows her when he submits to playing "Doctor," one of Lucy’s favorite games. "Take off your pants and cough," Lucy instructs her patient. "George is an asshole and likes to beat me up," he tells Lucy.Somewhere amidst these entrances and exits, Bradley, Mr. Marmalade’s personal assistant, enters carrying a box of chocolates for Lucy, a gift from Mr. Marmalade. Yes, he is also invisible, but we and Lucy can see he has a black eye, his arm is in a sling, and he’s on crutches, evidently a victim of his boss’s anger. Anger management seems to be a problem for Mr. Marmalade, whose next visit reveals him as a porn peddler, cocaine snorter, and a crude foul-mouthed abuser. As Larry has no problem going along with Lucy’s fantasy, he is able to protect her from Mr. Marmalade’s rage.
Lucy not only sees Larry as her hero but also someone who has created an imaginary world of characters that include a cactus and sunflower, played, of course, by fancifully-costumed actors. A fun time is had by all, as they send fruit loops flying all over the room. Mr. Marmalade presumably returns as a reformed man in the next scene, as he and Bradley vacuum up the mess. "I went through rehab for you," he tells the forgiving Lucy, as a fancy dinner is prepared by French chefs, candelabras are lit, a prism ball spins above, and Bradley croons "La Vie En Rose." Mr. Marmalade announces he is taking Lucy to Mexico, either before or after she tells him that she is pregnant. I don’t remember. And it isn’t relevant.
The denouement finds Lucy trying to cope with Mr. Marmalade, who is back to being abusive and crude and ready to walk out on her since the baby won’t stop crying. Mom comes home with another trick. Okay, we’ve figured out by now that she’s a slut. Lucy thinks she has figured out what to do to keep Mr. Marmalade from walking out. Forgive me if I don’t share with you that bit of melodramatic embellishment, or the three or four other climactic moments in the play that make about as much sense as anything that has already happened.
The six adult actors, four of whom play children, two in multiple roles, perform with varying degrees of bravery. They include Mamie Gummer, as Lucy, the little girl in pigtails with a grating voice and a serious psychosis; Michael C. Hall (of HBO’s Six Feet Under fame), as the schizophrenic Mr. Marmalade; Virginia Louise Smith, as the clueless Sookie, Emily, and Sunflower; David Costabile, as the pathetic but empathetic Bradley; Michael Chernus, as George, the Cactus and Sookie’s date, Bob; and Pablo Schreiber, as the dim-witted but devoted Larry.
Director Michael Greif ("Rent") connects the scenes and those committed to them. But there is little he can do to save a play as intellectually vacant as it is psychologically banal. Allen Moer’s set design has its moments of whimsy, as do Constance Hoffman’s costumes. In its favor, Mr. Marmalade is only 90 minutes long. Curtain time for evening performances begin at 7:30 pm. That means you get out at 9pm not too late to go for a nice late supper, down a few stiff drinks, and discuss your shopping list for Chanukah and Christmas.
Mr. Marmalade, through Sunday, January 29, Roundabout Theatre
Company at the Laura Pels Theater, $51.25 to $61.25). 212-719-1300.