Dark Childhood

Etcetera's delicious 'Mr. Marmalade' introduces the creepiest imaginary friend ever

Ah, for the carefree days of childhood, back when your only concerns were playing house, imaginary friends, co-dependency, addiction and violence.

At least that's the fabric of childhood in Mr. Marmalade, the toxic bedtime story now being presented by Etcetera, the late-night series at Live Theatre Workshop. Those threads are woven together in a tale that doesn't quite reach the heart, but is chock-full of gleefully jaw-dropping, ghoulish humor.

Framed as a children's story, complete with chapter breaks (and a delightful, Barney-on-drugs sound design by Christopher Johnson), the play follows the relationship between Lucy, a precocious 4-year-old, and Mr. Marmalade, her sociopathic imaginary friend.

In Lucy's imagination, a whole lifetime of physical and emotional violence is condensed into a single evening. In the morning, when her mother asks why she appears to be splattered with blood, Lucy sighs, "It's just been that sort of night."

Those who are familiar with Etcetera may remember last year's Kitty Kitty Kitty, about narcissistic, suicidal cat clones. Mr. Marmalade is another bit of wicked whimsy from the same playwright, Noah Haidle. Haidle has a gift for creating magical worlds that resemble our own—but where familiar things take on strange new meanings.

Here, he gives us a world of adult issues filtered through the eyes of a child. As played by the delightful Lucille Petty, a high-school student, Lucy never quite feels like a real 4-year-old. The writing alone makes that almost impossible, since Lucy appears too well-versed in the seamier side of life.

But Petty does capture the loose-limbed, wide-eyed, spontaneous wonder of a child. Dressed in brightly colored ballerina practice clothes (the costumes were created by Johnson as well), she radiates unending optimism. Her charm as a performer is what allows the play to bounce along, even as circumstances grow bleak.

Etcetera usually uses the set from whatever mainstage production is running at Live Theatre Workshop, and this is one of the most fortuitous crossovers that I have seen: The curtained pavilions of Cloud 9 are perfect as the overripe world of a little girl's fantasy bedroom.

But instead of conjuring princesses and fairies, Lucy longs for the foul-mouthed Mr. Marmalade. When we first meet this imaginary friend, he says he's so busy at the office that he can only pencil in a few minutes with Lucy every few days.

With Lucy begging for his time and wondering if he's seeing someone else, and Mr. Marmalade buying off Lucy with a promised trip to Cabo San Lucas, this feels more like a marriage on the rocks than any sort of friendship. When Lucy's busty mother (Shanna Brock) passes through on her way to meeting a date, we get the impression that Lucy is drawing from life experience.

As Mr. Marmalade, actor Stephen Frankenfield is least-convincing in his first scene. Yes, he's harried and licentious, and not particularly the kind of person you'd want to spend time with your child. But when his personal assistant (Richard Gremel) turns up with a telltale black eye, we're taken a bit by surprise: We haven't been prepared to believe that Mr. Marmalade is actually violent.

Starting with his second entrance, though—carrying a briefcase full of pornography and sniffing cocaine off of Lucy's tea-party table—Frankenfield pulls out all the stops. Careening around the stage and giving vent to every impulse, he's quite believably out of control, creating a real sense of danger for dear Lucy. Each time Mr. Marmalade returns, Frankenfield offers a new flavor of creepy, from dubious contrition to beer-swilling chauvinism.

Unfortunately, Haidle has created Lucy and Marmalade more through events than explorations of character, which leaves them feeling cartoonish. This doesn't make them any less entertaining, but it prevents their final decisions from having the emotional impact they might otherwise have.

The most fully drawn of the characters is, fittingly, the boy who offers Lucy a real-life alternative to her abusive dream guy—although that's not to say that he doesn't have problems of his own. Five-year-old Larry (played by young-adult Michael Martinez) is repeating preschool because of his anti-social behavior, including a failure to make friends, theft and attempted suicide.

He tried to kill himself, in part, because everyone has insisted that his childhood will be the happiest, most carefree part of his life. Terribly lonely, with divorced-and-remarried parents and a violent stepbrother, Larry has no interest in growing up. Even his imaginary friends—two wildly manic potted plants (Danielle Dryer and Amanda Gremel)—deliver chaos rather than comfort.

In Lucy, Larry finds a friend who doesn't judge him; she has seen much worse in her own imagination, after all. And although she doesn't realize it, Lucy finds in Larry an opportunity for redemption.

Skillfully directed by Kristi Loera, the cast is uniformly strong. Assorted supporting actors give fully realized performances in spite of their brief stage time, including Michele Loera as Lucy's irritable teenage baby sitter, and Johnson as both Larry's brutish stepbrother and Lucy's mother's drunken date.

Richard Gremel is especially warm and sympathetic as the aforementioned personal assistant. His character is an oasis of compassion in a world of self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, violent adults.

Loera and her cast are unable to overcome the play's weaknesses, but they have done great work of making the most of the show's strengths—its humor, its whimsy and its horror. The result is appalling, but delightfully so: For the right theatergoer, this may become a new favorite nightmare.

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