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.

Theater review: `Act a Lady’

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Benjamin Pither (left), Glenn Kiser (center) and Harry Breaux are Midwestern men recruited to play French ladies in a late ’20s pageant in Jordan Harrison’s intriguing Act a Lady at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema

Men in the `Act’ are once, twice, three times a `Lady’

A frustrated, god-fearing woman huffs and puffs with indignation: “What is art about a guy in a dress?”

Clearly, she’s never been to San Francisco.

But this woman, Dorothy is her name, has definitely not been to San Francisco. She’s a small-town Midwestern woman who reveres God and toes a straight moral line. She’s also one of the most interesting characters in Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady, now at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Dorothy, or Dot, is the voice you expect to hear saying no, no, no in Harrison’s fact-based drama about an early 20th-century phenomenon that involved grand pageants put on across the South and Midwest in which the townsmen paraded around as fancy ladies.

Inspired by photographs in a Lanesboro, Minn., museum of women helping the men paint their faces and get into their dresses, Harrison wondered it must have been like for rural men to upend all expectations and conventions by playing women on the stage.

The result is a fascinating two-act play that aims to have some fun while it explores some serious gender issues.

The NCTC production, directed by Dennis Lickteig features a likeable cast with some standout performances.

The first comes from Scarlett Hepworth as Dorothy, the according-playing voice of conventional morality. But Dot, especially in Hepworth’s capable hands, is no screechy ideologue. Rather, she’s a deeply intelligent woman with strong convictions and a great love for her husband, Miles (a warmly dignified Harry Breaux), who is perhaps enjoying his role in the play as Lady Romola a bit too much.

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Not only does Hepworth play the accordion with fleet fingers, she also sings beautifully and carries the heart of the show. Dot, it turns out, has had an open mind all along – she just didn’t quite know it.

Co-starring with Miles in the play-within-the-play – a wonderfully silly late 19th-century French farce about ladies with towering hair and big dresses (courtesy of costumer Jessie Amoroso) is one of the town’s rogues. True, as played by Glenn Kiser, has a reputation for running out on women and for liking his drink. Because it’s prohibition, he has to hide a bottle of pumpkin gin under the stage and sneak nips during rehearsal.

True’s eye is caught by the makeup artist helping director Zina (Michaela Greeley pictured above with Hepworth) convert the town’s men into ladies of the French aristocracy. The lovely young woman, Lorna (Laura Morgan), had been out in Hollywood working in pictures, but life was a little too fast out there, so she’s back home now. And she’s fascinated by True, whose masculinity is never in doubt, even as he seriously embraces his role as Countess Roquefort in the play.

Kiser’s True is tremendously appealing. You understand why Lorna would be drawn to him, just as you understand why one of the town’s lost young men, Casper (Benjamin Pither), would have an impossible crush on him as well. Casper, in his bow tie and argyle vest, has the most to gain from this production. Clearly a young gay man adrift in a world that has no idea what to make of him, Casper finds freedom in playing the drag role of Greta the Maid. He also falls hard for True off stage, and True, to his credit, handles Casper with all the compassion he can muster.

Pither is sweet and heartbreaking as Casper. When Harrison’s script starts to go off the rails – when the men start interacting with the roles they’re playing on stage and when the women start dressing as the men – the performances, especially from Pither, Kiser and Hepworth — keep the show focused and the emotional pulse alive.

The Act 2 trouble from the Ladies Christian Temperance Union never quite amounts to much, and after the strained farce of all the cross dressing and reality warping, the ending is downright corny.

But Harrison’s writing has flashes of brilliance.

Consider Dorothy’s heartfelt prayer before the men perform before the entire town (delivered with such warmth and believability by Hepworth):

“Lord, I hope it’s you workin’ through us tonight, and not you-know-who. Lord, help those boys get here fast and safe. Lord, help my husband be the star tonight and not the fool…Help this whole thing bring our town together somehow and not apart. Help it be art somehow, not just fellas stretchin’ out my delicates. I know you got a lot on your mind, Lord, but Lord, won’t you watch us tonight.”


Act a Lady continues through April 26 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit for information.

Review: `A New Brain’

Continues through Aug. 16 at Custom Stage, Off-Market Theatre

Benjamin Pither (center, in gown) is Gordon Schwinn, a man who needs a new brain in William Finn’s A New Brain, in a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company.

Finn’s `Brain’ pulses with vigor and vitality

William Finn’s A New Brain is a little treasure that slipped through New York and is finally getting its due in small productions around the country.

At Lincoln Center in 1998, it was clear that Finn, the composer of Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had written a very personal musical about being diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition.

But since then, the gems in Finn’s score have begun to shine even brighter.

San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company is in the midst of A New Brain, and their production amply demonstrates what’s great about the show (and what’s not, but that’s of minor interest).

Artistic director Brian Katz is at the helm of this nine-person musical, and at the center of the production are two massive talents. First is music director/pianist Rona Siddiqui, who sits center stage in an awkward, rotating “orchestra pit” and plays beautifully almost nonstop for 90 minutes.

Music is fully part of the story as main character Gordon makes his living writing ditties for a children’s TV show starring a frog named Mr. Bungee. The act of songwriting becomes the ultimate leap of creative faith as Gordon has to decide how he wants to use his talent: for the despotic frog or for the nurturing of his own creative soul.

Having Siddiqui at the center of that battle, playing Finn’s gorgeous, funny, sometimes bizarre music keeps attention fully focused right where it should be.

The other major talent is in the center role of Gordon. Benjamin Pither is one of those singing actors whose work is so solid, so vocally assured you never worry for a minute whether he can handle it and just relax into the performance and the character.

That’s a huge advantage in a small production like this. Pither, even when wearing a hospital gown and receiving a sponge bath, commands the stage without overpowering it. We come to love Gordon and his neuroses and creative soul searching.

Finn’s score is at its best in the group numbers “Heart and Music,” “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk” and “I Feel So Much Spring.” Along with the lovely duet “Sailing” (between Pither and Cameron Weston as Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger), and a mother’s torch song for her ailing son, “The Music Still Plays On” (nicely performed by Pat Christenson), these songs are among the most moving Finn has written.

There are also songs that feel like they’re from a different musical. Finn incorporates a homeless woman (well played here by Lisa-Marie Newton) into the story, but she never makes much sense in the overall arc of the story. And aside from “nice nurse” Richard (David Fierro), the medical staff (played by Charles Evans and Giana DeGeisco) don’t have clear enough characters and seem more like excuses to beef up the ensemble.

Marci Ring’s set turns the Custom Stage in the Off Market Theatre Complex into a brightly colored children’s room. It’s a small, multi-level space, and with nine performers on it, it gets crowded. And director Katz hasn’t always found the best configuration for his actors, especially when they attempt to execute Katie Kimball’s choreography.

But the energy is right, and the cast attacks the material with vigor. Even the not-so-great numbers come across well, and the show’s 90 minutes fly by. There’s real uplift at show’s end, and the heralding of spring, both as a season and as an attitude toward life, is genuinely moving.

A New Brain continues through Aug. 16 at the Custom Stage, 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit