The name “Mr. Marmalade” is the only sweet, tasty and benign aspect of South Coast Repertory’s controversial world-premiere play. Written by 25-year-old Noah Haidle, the youngest author SCR has ever produced, “Mr. Marmalade” tries to show that the inner lives of 4- and 5-year-olds are just as tangled, sordid and sexually driven as those of adults. Haidle’s vision is imaginative and audacious, but there’s too little credibility, even allowing for fanciful elements, and not enough backstory to support the behavior of the main characters.
The preschoolers are played by adults. Four-year-old Lucy (Eliza Pryor Nagel) is no Charlie Brown character — she despises her babysitter, Emily (Heidi Dippold); is rude to her divorced mother, Sookie (also played by Dippold); and saves her secrets for imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade (Glenn Fleshler). Mr. Marmalade is a monstrous, maniacal confidant — a violent, critical drug addict and alcoholic.
Frustrated by Mr. Marmalade’s abusive attitude, Lucy turns to Larry (Guilford Adams), a 5-year-old who has already attempted suicide. She and Larry play a salacious game of doctor, in which she gives his genitals a whoppingly long caress, and they decide playing house is the next natural step.
Nagel is convincingly girlish and charming but never entirely sheds her grownup persona. Adams is more successful at illuminating the inner child. Everything he does highlights a 5-year-old soul.
In the best sequence of this production, superbly directed by Ethan McSweeny, Adams opens his oversized trenchcoat (a costume triumph for Angela Balogh Calin) and pours out mountainous amounts of junk food stolen from 7-Eleven, then proudly organizes a dinner of treats for himself and Lucy. The way he stuffs his mouth and asks, “Can you pass the Oreos?” is perfectly observed in every detail.
His puzzled attitude when Nagel tells him they can’t play doctor anymore, now that they’re playing house, dramatizes the disconcerting point that sex often disappears with marriage. The sequence shows what a fine comedy “Mr. Marmalade” might have been.
Unfortunately, Lucy disposes of Larry, Mr. Marmalade returns and they have a baby. The plot becomes seamy and unpalatable, melodramatic in a way that prevents us from feeling any sympathy or compassion for Lucy’s plight.
Since extensive vulgarity and sequences “not for the squeamish” (as indicated by curtain notes) rule out suitability for children, the suspicion takes hold that this is a play without broad, specific appeal for any age group.
It would make more sense if we saw flashes of charisma in Mr. Marmalade, if he were a tantalizingly sinister Pied Piper who lured Lucy in and then exposed his viciousness. Fleshler portrays him to the hilt, but given the fantasy terms of the production, he comes across as so violent, so repugnantly realistic, that he appears to be in the wrong vehicle.
Marc Vietor as Bradley, Mr. Marmalade’s battered personal assistant, maintains a suave dignity, and Dippold suggests unexplored depths in her portrait of Lucy’s negligent mother. Dippold’s babysitter has an attractively tart edge, and she scores as a sunflower from Larry’s fantasies. Larry Bates also tackles three roles skillfully, registering strongly as Dippold’s boyfriend.
Though he goes over the line, Haidle makes a valid point: Children’s fears and perceptions are much darker than adults want to believe. Lucy’s grim fantasies would have heightened resonance if the script went beyond brief glimpses of home life and past, permitting theatergoers to discover stronger links between the child’s inner life and the actual horrors that triggered her complex, closeted world.