Bad Taste as Tonic in Red Herring’s Mr. Marmalade
Sometimes bad taste is a vital corrective to sensibilities gone stale. Red Herring’s new production of Noah Haidle’s comedy Mr. Marmalade, directed by Michael Garrett Herring brings a carnival of that refreshing tastelessness.
Mr. Marmalade looks at life through the eyes of four-year-old Lucy (Katie Tolerton). Lucy passes back and forth under the less-than-watchful eyes of a distracted, neglectful mother and babysitter, both played by Shannon Anderson. An imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade (Andy Batt), brightens Lucy’s lonely days. Mr. Marmalade drinks, does cocaine, criticizes her, and has to pencil her into his life of “working 20 hours a day.” Most of the time, he sends his assistant, Bradley (Levi McGrath) who shows up with mysterious bruises, making suspiciously familiar excuses for his boss. The other burst of light in her loneliness is meeting five-year-old Larry (Alex Foor), “the youngest person to attempt suicide in New Jersey” and already down a path of stealing and isolation.
Throughout this bleak, black comedy, we stay in Lucy’s mind: a patchwork of pop culture and filtered grown-up conversations. Lucy and Larry are cast as adults because no one sees themselves as children. Rebecca Zelanin’s marvelous set recalls a children’s television show with oversized letter blocks and a toy box. Transitions between the individual scenes are accompanied by cartoon music as two actors in monkey masks and suits with bow ties hold up funny, descriptive, title cards such as “Of the conversation between Lucy and Emily the Babysitter, during which they talk about Mr. Marmalade and his delinquent behavior and how men are like that in general unless you keep them in line.”
This production hits heights of incandescent nihilism with Andy Batt’s title character. Batt walks a barbed-wire tightrope that threads the needle of parody with painful emotional truth. His presence, what Tolterton’s character thinks about men, pervades everything on stage even when he’s not there like a classic comic book villain. When Mr. Marmalade claims to have been to rehab there’s a heartbreaking tic in Batt’s performance to make clear this four-year-old girl knows specific elements of 12 step recovery for her imaginary friend to “teach” her. He takes the classic trope of the well-dressed, cultured man who turns into a monster and makes it into an indelible character. Levi McGrath doesn’t have as much to work with as Bradley but he impresses as the one character in Lucy’s mind she trusts to treat her well.
Anderson has perhaps the hardest role as the two authority figures Lucy tries to emulate and disdains. She pulls off a remarkable juggling act here. She plays the two characters as variations on the theme of “adult woman” but draws key differences and making them their own people. Her empathy for Lucy’s trapped Mother, desperate just to escape the box she feels is crushing her lifts the character out of being an ugly cartoon.
That line between parody and terrified rage blossoms with Tolerton’s Lucy. Tolerton’s keen sense of self and commitment keeps the audience engaged at all times. She brings a slow burn to every move her character makes that’s all the funnier and more shocking when the facade cracks and she explodes. There are moments when the audience dissolves laughing in the sense of “I can’t believe this is happening” while never forgetting the heartbreak underneath. Foor’s Larry is a terrific foil for Lucy, with forays into baggy pants vaudeville and nebbishy one-liners. Lucy’s aggressive, ham-fisted “playing doctor” is a masterpiece of physical comedy and one of the most uncomfortable scenes I can remember.
Herring keeps everything moving at a pace that lets the moments breathe without sacrificing the antic, comic strip energy that this needs. Take too long on any of the individual moments and it the play sags with their horribleness. Too light and it mocks the traumas here instead of using humor to understand them. Herring’s direction is almost perfect in that regard. At the same time, the production underlines the core truth in Mr. Marmalade: what dooms Larry and might save Lucy is imagination, he tries but just can’t meet her in trying to believe in another vision of the world. The corollary there, vivisected and laid gleaming before us, is that too much imagination can be as deadly as too little.
Mr. Marmalade runs through August 12 with performances at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit redherring.info.