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2005_11_arts_marmalade.jpg“How old are you?” Lucy’s mom’s date asks Lucy as she catches him attempting to slip out of the house in the early morning. “Four,” she replies. “Four? Oh…that must be nice,” he says. But by this point in Mr. Marmalade, Noah Haidle’s striking play, you know viscerally that being four in this day and age can often be anything but nice. Childhood may never have been as idyllic as we like to remember it or think of it, but in the twenty-first century kids are exposed to so much and forced to grow up so fast that even their most childish activities may take on an uncomfortably adult tone. Haidle portrays the world of a modern child so great vividness and biting black humor that it will almost make you glad you’re an adult dealing with the rat race or the corporate ladder or what have you; even at its most over-the-top, it will make you stop and think genuinely about the direction our culture is going in, what it means for kids.

Devotees of the New Yorker and/or fans of Adam Gopnik will remember his utterly charming – and also kind of sad – story from Sept. 2002 about his daughter Olivia, who had an imaginary friend named Mr. Ravioli who was always too busy to play with her. I don’t know if Mr. Marmalade was explicitly based on Gopnik’s story, but it certainly recalls it in many ways: Lucy (Mamie Gummer) is neglected by all the adult figures around her (that is, her single mother and her irritable babysitter, both played by Virginia Louise Smith), so naturally she creates an imaginary friend (played by Michael C. Hall) – but instead of playing with her he starts treating her in just the same way. He even has a personal assistant, Bradley (David Costabile), who comes around more than he does, penciling in appointments for him to play with Lucy. The action of the play is all in one evening, when Lucy’s mom goes out with Bob and the babysitter’s boyfriend comes over with his little step-brother, Larry (Pablo Schreiber), a suicidal kid who takes a shine to Lucy (and she to him). But though technically only a few hours go by, for Lucy and Larry, with their hyperactive imaginations and childish conception of time, fifteen minutes can feel like years, and an evening can seem a lifetime, and that’s exactly the idea that Haidle plays with here in Lucy’s alternate real and so-called pretend worlds.

At least half of the events in the play are “imaginary,” according to cold reason – Lucy is struggling with Mr. Marmalade and/or his absence. But Haidle’s script and the actors’ skills make you fully buy in to Lucy’s world, such that the line between real and imaginary is constantly blurring, just as it does for Lucy, and when anything bad happens in the imaginary sphere, you can’t help but be shaken just about the same as if it were a straight telling of actual events. Gummer, Hall, and Costabile are definitely the stand-outs in the cast, though the others are quite good in their parts as well; they have all tapped their memories of being young and how they viewed adults when they were young, to great effect. The play only gets a little tiresome when Haidle insists on pushing the silliness of things one more step, usually in the scenes with Larry, whose character doesn’t manage to make you feel for him or see things the way he does as you do with Lucy. Partly this is because Schreiber plays Larry with so many annoying tics, and he’s so tall that it goes past the point of being an amusing contrast to Lucy or the very idea of a young boy, and is just weird. But Haidle also just tries to put too much into his character; another instance of his going too far is with the scene titles that are projected onto the backdrop, a winking meta-commentary that's just superfluous and distracting. He certainly doesn’t intend for the play to be really straight-faced, it’s true, and there aren’t too many moments when you feel put off by the approach he takes; for the most part you either recognize the satire and laugh (bitterly), or, as I said, you accept Lucy’s imaginings without really even knowing that you’re doing so, until “reality” barges back in and nervous middle-aged men are nattering on about how nice it must be to be a kid.

Mr. Marmalade has some rough edges, but more often than not you’re likely to find yourself completely absorbed in it and invested in Lucy’s world, which to me is the primary measure of a good play. It’s frequently hilarious, if in a morbid way, but it lands some real punches against both our vision of childhood and what we subject kids to these days. This serious element, as well as any number of distinct moments in the play, put me in mind of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. McDonagh is certainly the more fluent playwright, but Haidle is just in his mid-twenties; he’s definitely a playwright to watch, and Mr. Marmalade is a good place to start.

Details: Mr. Marmalade runs until Jan. 29 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Shows are Tues.-Sat. 7:30pm, Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2pm. Buy tickets via the Roundabout Theatre Co.

Photo by Sara Krulwich (NYT).