The Kids Aren't Alright

Mr. McDreamy: Michael Lee as Marmalade, Jaime Kleiman as Lucy
Dan Norman

Walking Shadow Theatre Company
at the Red Eye Theater through December 7

The day that the national marketing juggernaut identified grade-schoolers as consumers surely represented a little death for American childhood (and if you think that reference to la petite mort is accidental, take a gander at the makeup and skirt length on your average Bratz doll). And so arrives Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, a warped depiction of a young mind that shows the invisible world of childhood fantasy as grossly tainted by the vices and failures of adults.

Intention is one thing, it turns out, and execution is another. The setup is straightforward: Four-year-old Lucy (Jaime Kleiman) spends a lot of time alone in her apartment or in the care of people besides her mother (Katherine Kupiecki), whose apparent primary hobby is getting dolled up, going out, and bringing strange men home to spend the night.

In search of solace and companionship, Lucy turns to the dreamy, perfect, imaginary Mr. Marmalade (Michael Lee), a go-getter in a business suit who fits tea parties and various play dates with Lucy into his busy schedule. When he's too busy to drop by, Mr. M. sends his assistant, Bradley (Eric Sharp), who punches dates and times into a Blackberry and projects a generally harried air.

You get an early sense that we're onto something poignant. Kleiman plays Lucy smart and precocious, a little girl whose very fantasies barely have time to spare for her. Lee exudes a transparently phony confidence, with Marmalade promising Lucy a trip to Mexico in a squishy exchange that suggests Lucy thinks of herself as her fantasy man's wife. And rightly so—it seems that we're on our way to an implosion of the Prince Charming myth (one day my prince will come, after he gets out of a meeting).

But things head south, and while Brian Balcom's direction for a time keeps the drama and comedy focused, the work eventually careens dangerously close to incoherence. First Lucy plays doctor with, and semi-seduces, her babysitter's boyfriend's little brother Larry (Patrick R. Kozicky). Then Bradley arrives, having obviously had the shit beat out of him, and proceeds to make excuses for Mr. Marmalade.

Before long, Mr. Marmalade shows up drunk, pissed-off, and hoovering comically outsized lines of cocaine off the coffee table. He begins verbally beating up Lucy (sample dialogue, after Lucy asks if he's been drinking: "I had a few after work to unwind. You would too if you'd ever worked a day in your life."). Before long, Lucy is exposed to porn, dildos, and Mr. Marmalade's account of his latest stab at rehab.

Lee plays all of this stuff so straight that it's impossible to imagine it springing from Lucy's fantasies, despite Kleiman's nicely insinuating mix of knowingness and innocence. And while Kozicky plays his five-year-old with a panicky need percolating just under the surface (he recently survived a suicide attempt, we're told), Larry's own invisible playmates make a largely pointless appearance, unless their cartoonish behavior is supposed to draw a marked contrast to Lucy's worldly and sordid inner life.

And what of it? Has Lucy been so poisoned by exposure to grown-ups that she's paving the way for a tawdry future of her own? Does the fact that Larry interacts with Mr. Marmalade indicate that all is not as it seems, that perhaps Lucy's fantasies are powerful enough to assume material form? Or do we simply have a script that relies on shock whenever the heavy lifting of actually having to say something presents itself?

It doesn't much matter. Even if one were inclined to give this play more credit than it deserves, a final twist involving a vile offstage killing makes clear that Haidle is simply pushing buttons with little regard for the result. Yes, by the end Lucy sees a ray of light enter her mind, and certainly these players gave me enough for that small gift to resonate. But this show at one point depicts a pantomime heart transplant, and for the most part could use one itself.

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