Theater review: `Mr. Marmalade’

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Lillian Askew is 4-year-old Lucy and Gabriel Grilli is her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade in Noah Haidle’s oddball comedy Mr. Marmalade, a Custom Made Theatre Co. production. Photos by Bessie Delucchi

Tangy `Marmalade’ oozes with creepy, chilling laughs
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Jimmy Stewart had Harvey. Big Bird had Snuffleupagus. And 4-year-old Lucy has Mr. Marmalade, a Type-A businessman with a penchant for drinking, snorting coke and abusing Bradley, his mightily bruised assistant.

It seems imaginary friends, like so many aspects of modern childhood, have been co-opted by corporate America. At least that’s the case in Noah Haidle’s dark, twisted and deeply funny Mr. Marmalade, a production of the Custom Made Theatre Co.

The joke is that precocious Lucy (the superb and superbly named Lillian Askew), the product of a broken home who lives with her economically struggling mother (Juliet Heller), compensates for all the time spent alone or with a babysitter (a kind but rebellious Roselyn Hallett) by constructing an elaborate fantasy world, which playwright Haidle allows us to see.

Into Lucy’s fatherless world comes suit-wearing Mr. Marmalade (Gabriel Grilli), a by-appointment-only playmate who comes complete with briefcase, BlackBerry and promises to fly his young friend to Cabo San Lucas for a first-class vacation. Unfortunately, Mr. Marmalade is both more and less than he seems – he’s less of a beneficent playmate and more of a garden variety corporate asshole. After a stint in rehab, he attempts to make amends with Lucy and even offers to play one of her favorite games. “Let’s play doctor,” he says. “C’mere. My prostate hurts.”

When his assistant, Bradley (Daniel Duque-Estrada) appears to schedule brunch with Lucy, we know his black eye(s) and, eventually, his crutch, are the product of his boss’ unchecked rage.

What’s a little girl to do when even her imaginary life treats her horribly?

Haidle’s dark comedy is truly dark, though there’s near-constant laughter (when the audience isn’t gasping, that is) for most of its 80 minutes. That’s a real accomplishment, and director Daunielle Rasmussen deserves a whole lot of credit for finding and maintaining just the right off-kilter tone to keep Haidle’s humor bubbling while the action of the play delves into some terribly twisted territory.

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Adults playing children can be one of the most annoying things in the world, but Askew is astonishingly non-annoying. In fact, it’s sort of genius the way she maintains the illusion of childhood while giving an entirely grown-up performance, which is just how Haidle has designed the character. He’s really digging into the adults of the world and the deplorable ways (intentionally or not) they model behavior for children.

The hero of the story comes in the form of 5-year-old Larry (Benjamin Pither, right with Askew), who is on record as New Jersey’s youngest suicide attempt. As Larry says, “If this is the carefree part of my life, I don’t want to see the part that’s supposed to be hard.”

Like Askew, Pither finds that tricky toehold between playing a child while never leaving the realm of the adult. When Larry and Lucy engage in a game of “house” (bolstered by pocketfuls of junk food lifted from 7-11), the game quickly takes on shadows of discontent and ceases to be at all childish (even when Larry’s imaginary friends, a sunflower and a cactus, played by Heller and Arthur Keng, turn the game into utter chaos).

A deep-in-the-night fantasia about what happens after the happy ending takes on horror movie overtones, but, amazingly, the play rights itself and ends on a sentimental note that remains more sharp than sappy. Somehow Haidle has created a perversely funny fairy tale with real-world relevance. It calls to mind Stephen Sondheim in his dark fairy tale, Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see. And learn.”

And, according to Haidle, imagine – some truly terrible things.


The Custom Made Theatre Co.’s
Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle continues an extended run through June 20 at The Custom Stage in the Off-Market theater complex, 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.

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