With the title of his black comedy Mr. Marmalade, playwright Noah Haidle may have come up with the perfect sobriquet for himself: his dramatic tone (at least as evidenced by this and the recently-premiered Persephone) is much like that of the eponymous spread – sticky sweet with an edge of bitters. His real point, however, may be that this sour tang is the keynote of most relationships - at least as secretly experienced by the feminine half of the population: Mr. Marmalade is a dark fable about four-year-old Lucy (Rachael Hunt, above with John Kuntz), abandoned in her New Jersey home by her single mom, who conjures up an imaginary friend out of some lost episode of Entourage: an Ari-Gold-like player who’s got everything a girl could want, except a heart. And for a while, Lucy’s disillusionment with her nasty swain casts a funny pall over many a post-feminist myth: after all, she’s no incipient Powerpuff Girl but instead the innocent core of human need, and Mr. Marmalade’s crude-dude abuses pack a real punch (literally, to judge from the look of his personal assistant).
Still, the play winds up being a good deal less disturbing than many have implied. Lucy is slowly established as so conversant with our adult milieu (soon she’s even ordering sushi from Nobu) that her tribulations tip into abstract satire. And the play backs off its feminist critique, and remains well within our current Cablevision consensus (Lucy wises up, and trades in her imaginary friend for that imaginary personal assistant). Which is all well and good, I suppose, as far as it goes; and I didn’t even mind that in a pinch Mr. Haidle picks the pockets of fellow absurdists Christopher Durang and David Lindsay-Abaire. No, the real trouble with Mr. Marmalade is simply the fact that at 90 minutes, it’s spread a little thin – like the best bits of Persephone, this is a wicked-good sketch stretched to “full-length play” by the injection of gelatinous filler. In the current production by Company One (through August 11 at the BCA), director Shawn LaCount and his cast get through the not-so-royal jelly by simply redoubling their already-over-the-top energy: the results are often hilarious, and the production showcases at least two break-out performances, but the final effect is to make this smart, superficial play seem even a little superficialler than it really is.
Still, it’s hard not to fall for these hard-working actors. Perhaps first among equals are Daniel Berger-Jones, as the fey p.a. to Mr. Marmalade, and Greg Maraio as Lucy’s real-life playmate, Larry. The drolly coy Berger-Jones is just about perfect (or should I say fabulous?), while Maraio is endlessly, inventively funny – although he never slows down long enough to convince us that poor Larry, the “youngest suicide attempt in the history of New Jersey,” really has any dark, hidden depths. Still, both actors essentially earn their Equity cards with these turns, and sweet spitfire Rachael Hunt isn’t far behind as Lucy – she, too, merely needs to bring things down a notch every now and then to get in touch with her character’s lonely longings.
As Marmalade, the reliable John Kuntz brings his considerable talents to bear on the role, but alas, his familiar presence simply doesn’t exude quite enough menace (Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall, the original off-Broadway Marmalade, was indeed the ideal choice). Still, Kuntz is game for anything, and certainly earns his laughs as Marmalade devolves from power-asshole to just plain-old-asshole (one who even demands a prostate exam). Meanwhile, Amanda Good Hennessy can’t figure out what to do with the thankless role of Lucy’s careerist, sexually-active mother, but has a lot of fun with her bad-girl babysitter (an intriguing doubling, given actor Mark Abby VanDerzee doubles both her boyfriend and Mom's), and Danny Balel and Tory Bullock actually pull off Larry’s latecomer imaginary friends (who happen to be plants – again tellingly, a cactus and a daisy). This isn’t the strongest play Company One has fielded (and yes, after Persphone, even Haidle’s biggest advocate, the New Yorker’s John Lahr, has had second thoughts about him), but it may be their strongest production – one that could certainly be deeper, but only arguably sweeter.