In Noah Haidle’s 2004 comedy “Mr. Marmalade,” the young playwright deals with the sexual fantasies of preschoolers. His latest South Coast Repertory world premiere, “Princess Marjorie,” focuses on sexual fantasies in grown men who think like children. Both only skate the surface of the explosive issues they raise, and although “Marjorie” is more entertaining than “Marmalade,” the characters and situations lack depth and a tight dramatic build.
The play gets off to a promising start by utilizing a format that requires cast members to chat with the audience, commenting on certain scenes and delaying others. It’s a free-form gimmick in which performers make fun of their material and themselves, and helmer David Chambers milks it for maximum effect.
This seemingly spontaneous device is a good-natured disguise for the fact that the story moves in repetitive circles, and Haidle lays the jokes on with too heavy a hand for the approach to sustain itself throughout the evening.
“Marjorie” makes the valid point that some men are psychologically trapped by their adolescent obsessions. Brothers Harper (Michael Gladis) and dimwitted Charlie (Nathan Baesel) spend time masturbating to the memory of their gorgeous cousin Marjorie (Khrystyne Haje), even simulating the sex act between Marjorie and her first lover.
When Charlie dons Marjorie’s polka-dotted pink bra and panties, and Harper kisses and rolls over him, it’s hard not to speculate on the emotional problems that would cause two brothers to behave this way, but those dynamics are never explored.
Physically, the production benefits from Darcy Scanlin’s set, consisting of two adjacent cubes outlined in pink and blue neon, blue representing the boys’ bedroom, pink Marjorie’s old room. Musical interludes by the Crystals and Ronettes (particularly “Walking in the Rain,” with its thunderous, Grammy-winning sound effects) cheerfully evoke vanished youth.
Harper and Charlie’s games are inventive at first, especially Charlie’s re-enactment of a suicide by one of Marjorie’s fanatically devoted teen admirers.
These games are overemphasized, and it takes too long for Marjorie’s British husband, Steven (John Vickery), to show up. Surprisingly, he’s a stuffy, out-of-shape professor and poet who strikes both brothers as a nerdy, unsuitable match for their dream princess.
Broadway vet Vickery (“The Lion King”) is the one cast member who keeps firmly in character, and he gives the show some connection with reality.
His thoughtful underplaying can’t save the day, however, when Marjorie appears after many years’ absence and Charlie denounces her as an “ugly bitch.” Charlie crucifies her viciously for her loss of beauty, to the point of jumping out a window and leaving a note that says, “Your faded beauty broke my heart.”
It’s possible to view “Princess Marjorie” as a satirical slam at those who value looks over substance, and Haidle might have been able to develop understanding and sympathy for the much-maligned Marjorie if she showed worthwhile inner loveliness. Instead, Marjorie’s soul is repulsive territory. When her husband tries to offer comfort after the battering criticism of her appearance, she lashes back, “What do you know? You’ve been ugly all your life.”
At the heart of everyone’s disappointment is the sight of the inevitable aging that robs exquisite young people of their looks, and the betrayal felt by those who worshipped this perfection and resent its loss. Under the circumstances, the subject of age also is superficially treated or ignored.
Baesel’s Charlie has enjoyable moments. His sendup of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lines in “The Great Gatsby” (“So we beat on against the tide in the void’) is clever, and he contributes game delivery of a silly, climactic song. Gladis handles his shallow role with engaging naturalness.
Embodied by Haje, Marjorie is far too alluring and shapely to be the recipient of relentless attacks. If she had been physically unattractive, the situation might have offended more people with its cruelty, but it would have made sense. As it stands here, the escalating storm of hatred that deluges Marjorie is too farfetched, and an otherworldly, cop-out coda removes the sting from the story’s climax.