Regional Reviews: St. Louis
For the rest of you, it might all miraculously "snap" into focus much sooner. But it's definitely a post-modern comedy, which means "some assembly required" in our own heads.
In any case, there's this four year old girl, Lucy, played by Kimberly Byrnes: a delightful, diminutive but grown-up actress. And she makes a four year-old character like this exuberant and insane and smart and delightful. It makes a lot of sense because you really couldn't ask a four-year-old to do all of this and have great comic timing to boot, could you?
But the thing is, she has this imaginary friend. And he's a grown man: the Mr. Marmalade of the title ...
He has a personal assistant (Bradley) because Mr. Marmalade is very busy and has a lot of stress at work. But he still manages to find time to pop in himself, for brief, chatty tea parties and to plan fun future events with Lucy. And some day, for sure, they're going to play house. But Lucy's life keeps getting interrupted by her divorced mom dashing in and out; and her babysitter's all-too-grown-up outlook on the world; and even by a strange new (non-imaginary) friend as well.
Noah Haidle's 95-minute comedy debuted in 2004, and I love it as a (not very straightforward) tale of childhood humor and resilience. There might just be a big hole in Lucy's life, and we follow along as she tries to close it. The wise and kind Steve Callahan directs, and the too-seldom-seen Todd Schaefer appears as the very debonair Mr. M.
It's really charming, but there are a lot of things you won't understand at first. So don't bring the kids. You'll just feel awkward. Let's just say there are a lot of moments that could be taken the wrong way. You squirm a bit, and then you laugh for being a big dumb grown-up.
In that sense it's a lot like "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the television sensation with Paul Reubens (the set here, by Ken Clark, is charmingly reminiscent of it). And like that TV show, dialog and events spin wildly out of control, in directions that seem totally inappropriate for children. But then, somehow, those things all weave back together in a way that makes Lucy and her friends (and even her mom, played by breezy, yet strangely disturbing Angela Bubash) unexpectedly endearing. The best thing about newer comedies is the beauty that can come out of awful things, and this is a surprisingly great newer comedy.
Great work by Greg Matzker, as a flesh-and-blood childhood friend; and an unexpectedly hilarious, dark (and yet charming) undertone provided by Michael Brightman as Mr. Marmalade's personal assistant. He makes me think that every imaginary friend ought to have a major domo, dour and imposing, lyrical and long-suffering. Mr. Brightman is the biggest surprise of the night.
Dawn Campbell is lots of wicked fun as a teenaged babysitter, and Ryan Wiechmann is natural and insane (in three or four appearances), especially as a large potted Christmas cactus (with a great costume by Tracy Newcomb-Margrave).
It all reminds me of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at the Disney amusement parks, where you careen through the dark in a fun-car, nearly crashing every ten seconds or so, but end up laughing in spite of everything. And, somehow, a lot of the rocky points of childhood become beautiful and touching, even if you've never suffered them all yourself.
Through February 22, 2015, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, a block north of Delmar on Union. During construction the usual entrance off the (lit) parking lot is closed, and you may still have to enter through the north doors of the lovely chapel. From there, you're guided downstairs to the usual theater. For more information on Mr. Marmalade and the 104th season of the West End Players Guild, visit www.westendplayers.org.
Cast of Characters