By Martin F. Kohn
It’s the story of a little girl and her imaginary friend, but there’s nothing sweet about “Mr. Marmalade.”
For one thing, Noah Haidle’s play is about a little girl, Lucy, her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, and her imaginary friend’s personal assistant, Bradley, who keeps showing up with bruises and other dings but insists that it’s his own fault: He fell down the stairs or walked into a door.
For another, the relationship between 4-year-old Lucy and the imaginary Mr. Marmalade closely resembles a very bad marriage. As they sip pretend cups of tea their conversations typically devolve into: You never touch me anymore/I’m busy trying to make a living, you miserable bitch.
Pretty strong stuff for a 4-year-old to conjure up, but it’s not much more than an extended variation on a theme by Tammy Wynette. That would be the 1970s song “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” sample line: “My 4-year-old said, ‘I want a divorce.’ Now where did she hear that?”
But add in poor, abused, imaginary Bradley and, in Lucy’s real life, a 5-year-old playmate, Larry, “the youngest suicide attempt in the history of New Jersey,” and Haidle (born in Grand Rapids) provides something more: a hard-edged, sometimes funny rumination on loneliness, imagination and the resiliency of children.
It doesn’t work all the time, but at least Kevin T. Young’s Breathe Art Theatre Project staging brings together again the winning duo of Christa Coulter and Joel Mitchell. Unforgettable in Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre, they play analogous roles here.
Childlike in “Killer Joe,” Coulter plays an actual child here, Lucy, but she’s never cutesy. Few actors do brutish rage as well as Mitchell. He did it as an assassin in “Killer Joe,” he does it again here as Mr. Marmalade who, when he’s not pouring on the charm, makes Stanley Kowalski look like Dr. Phil.
Director Young does double duty as Bradley, evoking more than mere sympathy in his understated performance. Keith Kalinowski, as suicidal Larry, never lapses into childish mannerisms and his physical presence — he is by far the biggest actor in the cast — enhances the overall unreality, the blurred line between childhood and adulthood the playwright has established.
Several other characters are all played by two actors, Vanessa Sawson and Michael Carnow, but except for Lucy’s mother (Sawson) they are at best tangential to the main proceedings. One scene, involving a couple of talking plants, has little discernible reason to exist.
But the play’s big question – what are we doing to our kids? – has every reason to.
Breathe Art Theatre Project at The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Feb. 28; then at Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor, March 5-6. $20. Detroit: 248-982-4121; Windsor: 519-255-7600. http://www.breathearttheatre.com.