The Playgoer: REVIEW: Mr. Marmalade

Custom Search

Saturday, February 04, 2006

REVIEW: Mr. Marmalade

Mr. Marmalade
by Noah Haidle
at the Roundabout Theatre Company (closed)

No point in beating a dead play. But Mr. Marmalade should have been spotted as dead-on-arrival by the Roundabout, who bizarrely decided to devote one of its precious few slots for new writing to this extended MAD TV skit. I have discovered that reciting the concept to others ("5-year-old girl has dysfunctional relationship with abusive-yuppie imaginary friend") actually intrigues them. So maybe Roundabout was sold on the "pitch." That, or more likely, the pr-halo emanating from young Haidle, yet another anointed recent Julliard grad. (Or was it the opportunity to cast in the leading role the neglectable minor celebrity name of Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall as the title character.)

The flavor of Haidle's Juilliard prof, Christopher Durang, is all over Marmalade--but Durang employs ridiculous exaggerated situations to satiric effect. And also to genuine laughter. The comic inventiveness of Haidle's script goes no further than having his toddler characters play doctor with each other. For twenty minutes. It's annoying enough to watch adult actors play kiddies. But grown-ups playing children "playing grown-up"...the pleasures are limited. The "joke" is supposed to blossom when the action descends into more and more sordid depravity for its characters. When the girl ends up--in her very "real" fantasy world--barefoot in the kitchen nursing her baby while daddy Marmalade drinks beer in front of the TV and hurls obscenities at her...what's the point? Is it just cute to see childhood fantasies so deflowered? When South Park indulges in the same kind of sick inversions, it somehow retains the edge of satire or at least parody. Haidle, however, seems typical of the new generation of successful playwrights for shutting out all consciousness of the outside world, and indulging in some concept just because it personally amuses them. (Yes, I'm saying today's touted new plays have less depth than South Park.) Needless to say, Haidle's cred as an enfant terrible iconoclast of cherished innocence is totally dashed by his obligatory happy ending and cheap "healing" talk at the curtain.

So apparently there's some serious point behind all this. I learned from a special talkback (which the Roundabout now calls "Celebrity Discussions"! Whatever happened to "Meet the Artists"?) that Haidle only wrote the play because his actress-girlfriend wanted to wear a tutu onstage. This was meant to promote the show? The actors on the panel elucidated to us that the grating intermissionless 1hr 40 minutes we just sat through was really a cautionary tale of the exploitation of the media! (At least I was right about the abuse part.) You see, there was a big TV set center stage which the characters occasionally plopped down in front of. The Mr. Marmalade character--with his attache case, cell phone, and other status-accoutrements--apparently represents that decadent culture from Hollywood to which, no doubt, Mr Haidle will soon be repairing. Needless to say, this concept was underdeveloped in the onstage proceedings.

Michael Greif's funhouse-style direction, while showing himself off well, didn't help things. The shrillness of the "child" performances and the garish playroom of a set only overcompensated for what the whole endeavor clearly lacked--the true perspective of a child. Haidle shows no grasp of either the complex innocence of such a protagonist, neither does he lend the girl the latent maturity and wisdom of an adult. What we get is something in between--oh wait, that's called adolescent, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

'Mr. Marmalade' has just seen another revival at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, WV, and I can only imagine that the production is somewhat superior to that of the Roundabout's. First of all, Lucy, who is 4, not 5 (and Haidle is a Princeton grad, not Juilliard), was not portrayed as squeaky or over-the-top. In fact, her transition from child mimicking the adult behavior she witnesses around her with her imaginary friends to simply a child when confronted with a parent or babysitter was flawless. Mr. Marmalade was more grimy, more real than Hall's portrayal. And Larry, the suicidal 5 year old, was probably the comedic highlight of the entire show. Perhaps it took a performance in West Virginia, far from the overcritical eyes of New York, to bring out the more vital instincts of this play. No-name performers lend a more bittersweet reality to this obviously absurd play, but when the actors aren't related to Meryl Streep or connected to 'Six Feet Under', it becomes easier to watch them without judgement and focus on the show. While Haidle has developed a bit of an egotistical personage, isn't it just as important to look at a play for the merits of the piece, rather than judging it against the reputation of its author? If you're willing to give 'Mr. Marmalade' another chance - and I believe you should - consider the trip into the boonies to see it performed in a far more intimate setting and with a far less critical audience.

Anonymous said...

Haidle may well be a Princeton graduate, but he is also a product of the Juilliard writing program.

The problem with the New York production is a long-standing issue for the Roundabout, which predates even Todd Haimes's tenure with the company. The casting of "name" actors such as Michael C. Hall--and, in this case, also casting Meryl Streep's daughter, Mamie Gummer--often reduces interesting work to the lowest common denominator: Who's the celeb onstage?

The original 2004 production at South Coast Rep was sweet, funny, tender and wrenching to watch. Middle age women in the audience when I saw it--those comfortable Orange County matrons who keep SCR in business (God Bless 'Em)--were incensed (in a soft-spoken way) by the unreality and vulgarity of the piece.

From their comfy perches, I'm sure that the play seemed to be something from Bizarro World. But the play's imaginative (and dark)vision of single-parent families in crisis (and the impact of it on a forming generation) was well worth the time spent.

Despite Haidle's reported comment that he wrote it because his girlfriend wanted to wear a tutu onstage--a doofus attempt at humor, no doubt--the New York production gave the text and its possibilities short shrift.

Anonymous said...

oh my god, what's your problem!
why can't you just enjoy a funny black comedy!
god, i hate these modern critics!