Mr. Marmalade is a very funny play about kids, but it's definitely not for kids. (The children are all played by adults.) Noah Haidle's tale of a little girl and her unusual fantasy life is sometimes hard to swallow; the absurdities pile up way too high, and the points the playwright is trying to make take a back seat to his desire to get laughs. Happily, Theatre Exile's production moves so swiftly that you'll probably be laughing too hard to think about the troubling aspects.
Left alone most of the time by her divorced, promiscuous and irresponsible mother, Lucy has invented Mr. Marmalade to keep her company. But his busy schedule means that she's spending more time with his excuse-spouting personal assistant, Bradley. But wait - why has Bradley got a black eye? ("I fell down some stairs," he claims feebly.) And why is Mr. Marmalade so jealous of Lucy's new playmate Larry? ("He's five! You're not gonna leave me for a toddler!") It looks like the pressures of life in the fast lane have gotten to Mr. Marmalade - he's snorting cocaine and toting pornography. Guess it's time for him to go to rehab - but don't worry, he'll be out by Lucy's bedtime.
Mr. Marmalade shocks at times, but it allows Haidle to make a statement about latchkey kids who are just growing up too fast and have little chance to be children. Alas, the play is so determined to be outrageous that it doesn't even bother to be even a little realistic. The fact that Lucy's mother is inattentive doesn't explain how Lucy has been able to learn so much about things like sex, prostates and hara-kiri. The same goes for Larry, Lucy's five-year-old friend who has attempted suicide, committed petty larceny and read "The Sound and The Fury": Haidle has made him too young and sophisticated to be believable. It's fine that the imaginary characters are exaggerated cartoons, but when the "real" characters are exaggerated too, it rings hollow. And once Haidle makes his serious points about parents and children in the first scene, he doesn't have much to add to them.
Haidle's comic inventiveness lags a bit toward the end (a violent parody of kitchen sink melodrama in the penultimate scene is a step too far), but for most of its 80 minutes, Mr. Marmalade has a lot of laughs. Director Joe Canuso's production benefits from a lively pace and a wonderful cast. Amanda Schoonover is delightful and impish as Lucy. With just the right blend of maturity and immaturity, Schoonover faces every new challenge with a quizzical expression, a mischievous gleam of in her eye and a charismatic command of the stage. Other standouts include Jeb Kreager, who captures all the mood swings of the title character; Dan Hodge as the nervous and hyper Bradley; and Robert DaPonte, hilariously neurotic as Larry. Even in the smaller roles, Canuso's actors are having fun: Charlotte Ford's petulant sneer and antsy fidgeting perfectly embody a teenager who'd rather be doing anything but babysitting a tot.
In the last scene, Larry finally coaxes Lucy out of her imaginary world, to come outside and play dodgeball. "It's a fun game," he says. (Really? I seem to recall it involving a lot of crying.) But as Lucy heads out into the sunshine, finally beginning her childhood, the play ends on a note of hope, suggesting that even the most damaged children have a way out. Mr. Marmalade did more than make me laugh a lot; it made me glad that the four-year-old in my life, my nephew, isn't making wisecracks like Lucy or reading Faulkner like Larry. For now, I hope he sticks to Dr. Seuss.
Mr. Marmalade runs through November 25, 2007 and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$40 and are available by calling 215-922-4462 or online at www.theatreexile.org.