Country Playhouse's Mr. Marmalade: A Funny and Disturbing Portrait of Childhood

The setup:

"How do I look?" asks goth babysitter Emily (Keshia Lovewell), salivating and pulling down her top in anticipation of her boyfriend's arrival. Her four-year-old charge Lucy (Monica Passley, in one hell of a performance), doesn't miss a beat. "Easy," she squeaks out with Borscht Belt precision.

Noah Haidle's R-rated comedy about precocious Lucy and how she copes with life through her imaginary friends should be an X-game in the Olympics. You watch and think: Do kids really do this? Should kids do this? Well, no, only in the theater, and usually only when it's a play by Haidle, whose own fervid and darkly comic imagination goes into overdrive when he juggles fantasy (Persephone, Saturn Returns, Vigils). But he has never succeeded as deftly as he does when he sees the lonely, painful world through the crystal clear eyes of Lucy in Mr. Marmalade, now running at Country Playhouse.

The execution:

We don't know the exact reason for Lucy's vivid imagination, which lets her so easily conjure an adult playmate, Mr. Marmalade (Taylor Biltoft), who begins too good to be true, then turns dangerously sexual. Whatever reason, she has a deep, personal relationship with him, like a grownup. What's shocking is that the details of this abnormal friendship come out of a child's mouth. Before the play is minutes old, Lucy suddenly blurts out in innocence, "How come you haven't touched me?...Is there someone else?" The questions are practically obscene. What could very well be taken as child abuse or as too painful for us to watch, Haidle turns inside out by having the children, Lucy and her real playmate, suicidal Larry (Louis Crespo Jr.), played by adult actors. The comedy can now be smart instead of snarky and objectionable -- and still pitch-dark, of course.

This writers' device, of course, only works when the actors can act like kids. Happy to say, Passley and Crespo do wonders with these roles, bringing wide-eyed wonder, deep-seated loneliness and bouncy playground charm to these children who see their world like adults. They seesaw through their young lives, saying and doing adult things but behaving like tots: throwing tantrums, having food fights, playing house and doctor, and manipulating obtuse Mom. Eventually, they cast off their fantasy playmates and find some kind of happiness with each other.

The ensemble cast, under Scott McWhirter's sensitive direction, is foolproof. Passley is perfection, never losing that childlike sparkle or high-pitched yelp, no matter the travails she dreams up for herself. In her dress-up tutu and T-shirt that says "Cute, but Psycho," she's your normal four-year-old, although someone who sleeps around, gets pregnant, marries her lout of a lover and loves nothing more than guzzling Reddi-wip straight from the can or having a proper cucumber sandwich. She's particular for Darjeeling oolong. Nothing is overplayed or hammered on us; Passley just is. Crespo matches her with an innocence that also masks great pain. "I'm the youngest suicide victim in New Jersey," he boasts when coming out of his shell to Lucy, showing off his wrist bandages. "I don't enjoy childhood at all," he deadpans with a desperate truthfulness that cuts to the bone.

Biltoft allows Marmalade's Jekyll and Hyde personality to arise without editing. We see him through Lucy's eyes, although at a certain point -- which is Haidle's intention, to be sure -- he takes on a life of his own. He's marvelously smarmy, suave when he's the husband from Heaven, enjoying a cup of Lucy's coffee and promising her a trip to Mexico; next, slovenly and abusive, lapping up the cocaine from the living room table and spilling out porn and sex toys from his briefcase. A macho nightmare, he changes faces as Lucy comes into her own.

Marmalade has a Man Friday, his secretary Bradley, who arranges meetings with Lucy and then, later, bares the physical scars of Marmalade's hidden temper. He opens up Lucy's eyes. Danny Seibert, with precise, fussy accent, exquisitely turns this toady into the only sympathetic adult in Lucy's world. He's Lucy's fantasy, after all, and his compassion in not wanting to hurt her any more than what's already been done is immensely welcome.

Laura Chapman, as overworked horny single mom, Lovewell as the exasperated baby sitter, and McWhirter as Larry's bully brother nicely round out Haidle's caricatures, softening the edge and making them more like real people. Larry has his own imaginary friends, two plants that intrude on playtime and make a shambles of dinner. As Cactus and Sunflower -- in Deborah Blake's comic costumes that look like a child's crayon drawing -- Beverly Hutchison and Scott McWhirter bring manic cartoon silliness into the faux adult gloom. It's just the relief this play needs.

The verdict:

Children in literature have been going through head trips since Alice and Peter Pan, but Haidle barges through their Necco wafer world like Edward Albee in Wonderland. This portrait of childhood is funny and disturbing, a dissection of desperately lonely kids who survive the world by creating a new one. That their fantasy land is sometimes worse, and looks a lot like our dysfunctional adult one, gives us pause. The next time a youngster asks to play house, be on guard.

Noah Haidle's perceptive, grown-up comedy runs through August 25 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at the company Web site or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.

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