The 1997 Belgian movie, “Ma vie en rose,” explored adult issues of sexuality, gender, romance and self-identity with disarming candor and sensitivity through the eyes of a pre-sexual 7-year-old boy. The Edith Piaf evergreen gets crooned also in “Mr. Marmalade,” playwright Noah Haidle’s whimsical fabrication of a 4-year-old girl’s fantasy world, her head swimming with highly evolved notions of sex, love, loneliness, depression, drugs, violence and interdependency. But despite Michael Greif’s vibrant production, this facetious play never goes beyond its conceit to plumb psychological depths, making it far less darkly comic or unsettling than it presumes to be.
Undoubtedly, there’s much to be written about the surprising complexity of adult issues absorbed by children, and about the ways in which dysfunction is processed by an infant’s mind. But Haidle shines light on neither small-fry nor grownup perspectives. In order for the central idea to work, some foundation in truth and plausibility would seem necessary. Instead, the 27-year-old playwright offers shallow, sitcommy provocation that fails to inch under the skin.
Divided into six chapters each labeled with a wordy heading (I: Of the strained relationship of Lucy and her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade), the play declines to stray far outside the fertile imagination of precocious New Jersey tot Lucy (Mamie Gummer) and authenticate the environment that informs her fantasies. We briefly meet her divorced mother Sookie (Virginia Louise Smith), who squeezes in fleeting attention for Lucy between her waitressing job and dates. Likewise Lucy’s trashy teenage babysitter Emily (Smith again), who engages the kid only until boyfriend George (Michael Chernus) arrives to make out.
Both her mother and Emily humor Lucy about the presence of her imaginary playmate Mr. Marmalade (Michael C. Hall), who is not the usual innocuous furry friend but a smartly attired businessman, sipping hurriedly from her tea set before dashing back to the office.
Lucy’s frustration with the limited time he makes available for her is manifested in paranoid jealousy: “Why don’t you touch me anymore? Is there somebody else?” She gets a hint of sympathy from Mr. M.’s personal assistant Bradley (David Costabile), whose black eye and sprained limbs betray the boss’s violent temper.
When a flesh-and-blood friend enters Lucy’s life via George’s 5-year-old stepbrother Larry (Pablo Schreiber), he represents both an intrusion and a fascinating novelty to her hyperactive mind. No less screwed-up than Lucy, Larry is repeating pre-school and has attempted suicide. She coaxes him into stripping for an uneasily sexualized game of doctor before progressing to the more sexless practice of playing house.
Larry’s own fantasy friends — a potted cactus (Chernus) and sunflower (Smith) — prove too much of an unruly crowd for Lucy to control, but the real problem surfaces with the return of Bradley and Mr. Marmalade. Their territorial claim on Lucy is tested by competition from Larry. But despite Mr. M.’s drinking, drug use and abusive behavior — not to mention a penchant for porn exposed when his briefcase falls open and spills out an assortment of sex toys — Lucy chooses him. Their romance flourishes when he emerges changed from rehab but takes a steep dive when the realities of domesticity and a screaming baby take hold.
In her first Off Broadway role, Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) is an infectious livewire presence. Amusingly outfitted with pigtails, pajamas and tutu, she drolly negotiates the volatile shifts between sweet and bratty sides, sulkiness and excitability, bored irritability and insatiable inquisitiveness. But the writing fails to provide grounding for the destabilizing need that shapes Lucy’s off-kilter behavior, let alone the compassion or insight to analyze it.
Similarly compromised is Schreiber’s role. Though he ably reveals the emotional hunger beneath Larry’s goofy appearance, with his basin cut, clamdiggers and gormless expressions, the writing is too glib to resonate in any serious way. Even the half-promise of a more wholesome bond between the two kids in the final scene seems disingenuous.
The age-blind casting extends to Smith and Chernus as teens Emily and George, but these and other roles remain cartoonish satellites in Lucy’s personal orbit. Costabile slyly uncovers more subtle shadings in the maltreated Bradley. Making a welcome return to the New York stage after his long absence in “Six Feet Under,” Hall mines elements from two previous roles, harnessing the charismatic shysterism of Billy Flynn in “Chicago” with the sinister charm of the Emcee in “Cabaret,” descending into darker territory as Mr. Marmalade chafes against the squalor of reality. But again, the actor is sold short by a facile script.
Greif choreographs plenty of elaborate business — a food fight with Fruit Loops; a subsequent cleanup operation with Hall and Costabile wielding SuckBlow 6000 devices; a romantic dinner with a sushi cart, candelabra, mirror ball and musical chefs suddenly materializing — and keeps the actors bouncing about against designer Allen Moyer’s simple yet arresting curved wall of gaudy floral wallpaper. But more than anything else in this inconsequential play, it’s Kevin Adams’ dappled pink and blue lighting that most subtly evokes a child’s fantasy world.