ORLANDO – If you take some of the basic plot lines in Noah Haidle’s play “Mr. Marmalade” – Lucy begins seeing a man who has a violent temper, is abusive and uses drugs – you might think you had the makings of a traditional soap opera, or maybe one of those sensitive Lifetime Channel movies for women.
You wouldn’t even be close.
It’s true that several of the things that Lucy experiences in her relationship with Mr. Marmalade would seem at home in a domestic drama, such as when Mr. Marmalade screams at Lucy to keep their baby quiet while he’s watching TV, or how manic and scary he gets when he begins snorting cocaine. Marmalade has a personal assistant, Bradley, who bears the blunt of the man’s temper – including ugly black eyes – and it’s clear that whatever it is that first attracted Lucy to Mr. Malmalade, she may be in way over her head with this dude.
What makes Haidle’s play so unique, though, is one simple fact: Lucy is 4 years old. She speaks in a child-like voice, and enjoys serving little cups of pretend tea to her babysitters, playing with dolls, and doing other things that children do.
Mr. Marmalade is an adult, but he’s not a neighbor, relative or family friend. Marmalade, and Bradley as well, are imaginary people that Lucy invented to keep herself entertained on those long, lonely evenings when her mother has decided to hit the bars, get drunk, and bring home total strangers for casual sex. She leaves Lucy in the care of a babysitter who invites guys over so the two of them can sneak upstairs to do “math homework.”
Lucy is a child who has been exposed to a few too many of the tawdry things that adults routinely do, and Lucy has a rather jaded view of life for someone so young. When her babysitter goes to answer the door in anticipation of her latest boyfriend being there, she tosses off her sweater to reveal a highly provocative corsette.
“How do I look?” she asks Lucy, to which the child responds, “Easy.”
The babysitter lights up with excitement. Perfect!
“Mr. Marmalade” is a comedy, though not everyone will see the humor, I suspect. The darkest of pitch dark humor, it uses a variety of subject matters – drug abuse, domestic violence, suicide, child abuse, even murder – that a lot of audiences are likely to find highly insensitive, offensive, even sick topics for comedy. Once you get the basic premise – that a little girl’s imaginary character is a violent coke-sniffing fiend – if your basic preference is for the likes of “The Sound of Music,” you might be slightly traumatized by the end of this one.
On the other, there’s no denying the power of Haidle’s basic message, that kids observe, and learn from, the behavior of adults. As a figment of Lucy’s imagination, Mr. Marmalade wasn’t created in a vacuum. Given that the adults around Lucy no longer seem to care if their behavior goes unnoticed, they unrealistically expect that Lucy will happily behave as all four-year-olds traditionally are supposed to. In a sense, she does, in that Lucy creates an imaginary world to fall back into.
What the adults simply don’t understand is just how realistically Lucy’s play world mirrors the ugliest aspects of their own behavior.
Gwendolyn Boniface does a remarkable job as Lucy, managing to make her seem totally child-like at times, while also making it clear that Lucy has learned all the wrong lessons about what people are supposed to do in life. It’s almost as if Lucy wants quite badly to just be a child and have fun. It’s unfortunate that none of her adult supervisors know how to help her do that.
In fact, Lucy’s happiest moments are when she befriends Larry, a five-year-old boy who is being abused by his older brother. Lucy and Larry play house, and seem to be having a wonderful time – finally, an imaginary world that’s safe and nurturing. Then reality comes back, in a horrible way, when we learn that Larry – who can also see Mr. Marmalade and Bradley – has been introduced to far too much Adults Behaving Badly behavior in his time.
“That’s the other reason I had to repeat pre-school,” he says. “I tried to commit suicide.”
And Larry, so well played by Miles Berman, says he just never accepted the advice adults had been giving him.
“Everyone says ‘Enjoy your childhood while it lasts,’ ” he says.
This play is sick and offensive at times — and that’s not necessarily a criticism. Deeply disturbing, with a downright scary performance by Cory Boughton as Mr. Marmalade, this is one show that pretty much nobody could define as being “dull.” Almost hypnotic in the squalid horrors it portrays, this stuff might have been decently effective, with a strong cast, if the show had been all about the naughty things adults do.
Seen through the eyes of two sweet toddlers, the play is a theatrical fist right between your eyes. Not for the squeamish, it gets a reaction out of you – over and over again. How many plays these days can claim that?
Produced by Howler’s Theatre and Renegade Theater, “Mr. Marmalade” runs tonight at 8 p.m., then next Friday and Saturday at the same time. Tickets are $15 for seniors and members of the Armed Forces, and $20 for general admission.
The shows are being performed at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. at Loch Haven Park. The show includes a special appearance by members of the Orlando Gay Chorus.
For tickets, log on to www.howlerstheatre.com.
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