When they say that today's kids are growing up faster than ever, they're not kidding. These days, even imaginary friendships aren't free from invasion by adult concerns - swearing, physical abuse, even drugs are fair game for children's pretend worlds. And don't even ask about unplanned pregnancies.
Okay, maybe (hopefully) not all playtimes are so infected, but don't tell that to Noah Haidle. They form the basis of his new play, Mr. Marmalade, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre and is as fond of dysfunction as most youngsters are of chocolate or chewing gum. This play isn't remotely appropriate for children (in case you hadn't guessed) and might well leave some adults wincing. But it refuses to use its myriad corruptive and violent elements simply to shock: It also makes salient arguments about the current states of childhood and parenthood.
They are, of course, inextricably linked - Haidle forces us to remember not just that children exist and need adults, but that they're far more perceptive of what we do and say around them than perhaps we always realize. After all, four-year-old Lucy (Mamie Gummer) couldn't devise all of her ideas with no external influences. With her parents divorced, and her custodial mother (Virginia Louise Smith) working during the day and dating extensively at night, she's had lots of time to fill her head with cruel and unusual ideas from either daytime talk shows or the sadistic babysitter (Smith again) her mother sometimes engages.
Enter Lucy's imaginary friend and husband, Mr. Marmalade (Michael C. Hall, best known from TV's Six Feet Under), a workaholic who smokes, snorts cocaine, and totes sex toys and pornography in his briefcase. The best he can do is to pencil her into his life in stretches of 10 or 40 minutes, and send his hapless assistant, Bradley (David Costabile), to smooth things over at other times. These troubles all make real life even more attractive, and cause Lucy to start looking differently at the suicidal neighbor boy Larry (Pablo Schreiber), a perfect playmate, whether the game is House (with bizarre rules) or Doctor (self-explanatory).
It's a twisted coming-of-age story, yes, a grown-up growing-up morality tale that just happens to be about children. (And, yes, all the actors are themselves adults.) Haidle proves surprisingly adept at balancing the play's comedy and tragedy (especially in a Greek shocker of a climax), and director Michael Greif has staged the show as a blistering burlesque bump-and-grind that keeps the haphazard happenings more on-kilter than you might presume possible.
But what's lacking is a conceptual anchor, a consistent vision of how everything, from the actors to the sets and the costumes, should look, sound, and operate together. True, Kevin Adams's storybook lighting and Michael Friedman's Sesame Street-styled original compositions are of the proper tone. But Allen Moyer's pink-and-red, floral-wallpapered set suggests a child's playroom or the interior of a dollhouse, never the stated locale of an imposing, adult New Jersey living room. Constance Hoffman's costumes clash angrily against the boundaries between imagination and reality, with some getups looking like they were constructed for a freakish school play and others like they were bought off the rack at Macy's.
Many of the performances are similarly afflicted. Gummer most successfully balances maturity and youth, seeming from beginning to end like a four-year-old going on 35. Her squeaky voice rings with a harsh, knowing edge that ideally complements her gawky, too-small-for-her-body physicality. Costabile has a tough assignment as the downcast subservient who only eventually comes into his own, but evokes a still-maturing adult almost as completely as Gummer does a still maturing child. Both actors' performances register as strongly in the play's lightest moments as its darkest, providing crucial continuity not otherwise in firm evidence.
Hall, especially, evinces no outward understanding of what he's doing or how he's doing it. Looking like an underfed James Bond reject, he moves stiffly and speaks with a stilted tone that condescends when it should soothe and barks when it should spark; he's a cartoon figure without enough discernible appeal to make his and Lucy's relationship come alive. Schreiber has the opposite problem, sailing past the mark of making Larry troubled yet precocious and instead making him merely annoying; we understand neither of Lucy's "loves" well enough to understand her better. Smith and Michael Chernus, as a series of "older brother" types, are generally required to play it straight and do well enough, but add little additional distinction to the proceedings.
Without that, Haidle's unconventional play becomes almost untethered in its weirdness, leaving the playwright's uniquely quirky voice to communicate a message audiences might (rightly) feel they've been bombarded with over the last decade or so. But it proves to be almost enough: How many playwrights would conjure up all these ideas, let alone cap them off with a food fight, someone committing hara-kiri onstage, and a dialogue scene that gets the evening's biggest laughs because every word is obscured by the use of leaf blowers?
Whether Haidle's own fantasy life as a boy was as rich as what's presented here is hard to know; it certainly would explain the impressive array of shenanigans he's brought to the Laura Pels. And it might also provide enough material to make him a writer worth watching carefully in the future. If so, it will likely allow him the career and success that Mr. Marmalade, swallowed whole, probably can't do by itself.