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Home alone and abandoned and afraid and disturbed in the pitch-black comedy

Mr. Marmalade

Written by Noah Haidle, directed by Johanna Gruenhut

At the Stillpointe Theatre Initiative through March 29

Lucy (Kelsey Painter) says she's 7 years old.

She has an imaginary friend named Mr. Marmalade (Charles D. Long). He wears a suit and carries a briefcase and when he pops into Lucy's living room at the start of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative's current production, he seems like a very nice guy. He speaks in the clear, direct, and simple sentences of children's television hosts. He smiles and treats Lucy like a peer. And when she asks him if he has time for tea, he jovially says yes, opens his briefcase, and pulls out a toy set. But he can't stay for too long because he has to get back to the office, and just as he's about to leave Lucy asks him why he hasn't touched her recently. Is there somebody else?

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Something strange isn't merely afoot in Noah Haidle's one-act play, which made its off-Broadway debut in 2005. Lucy's life is, quite bluntly, seriously fucked up. She's actually 4 years old, lives with her single mother (Nancy Bannon), who spends her day at work and her night out looking for a man for the moment, leaving Lucy in the care of babysitter Emily (Bannon again). Lucy knows more than she should for her age, but don't tell that to any of the ostensible grown-ups who walk in and out of her life. They're too busy searching for their own momentary obliteration of the present to notice what may be going on with Lucy. So Lucy imagines what's going on for herself. The result is a hilarious, uncomfortable place where

Romper Room

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meets melodramatic erotic thrillers.

Director Johanna Gruenhut and set designer Ryan Haase understand the play's unreal reality. The entire story, which is divided into chapters like a storybook, takes place in that liminal space where Lucy's imagination bleeds into the blunt ordinariness of a working-class life in New Jersey, where Lucy's mom is overworked and underpaid, where Emily just wants to watch TV, smoke cigarettes, and invite her boyfriend George (Mike Smith) over to hook up while she's supposed to be watching Lucy. Haase's set is a riot of frozen pea green, with hidden doors that provide gateways into wherever Lucy's mind takes her. And Gruenhut has successfully calibrated the cast into shifting spheres of existence: When Bannon, for example, is dealing with Lucy as her mother or babysitter, her attitude is placating and condescending, the stance an adult takes when talking to a child. Painter's Lucy is an exposed nerve throughout, sounding every bit like the still-forming human when talking to her mom, but oddly experienced when talking with Mr. Marmalade, who interacts with her as more of a peer, though it's an immature version of maturity.

That immaturity only extends so far, because you slowly begin to realize that Lucy has witnessed more adult life than any 4-year-old should. Mr. Marmalade has an assistant named Bradley (Scott Gaines) who maintains Mr. Marmalade's busy schedule and coordinates his travel plans, such as when Mr. Marmalade promises to take Lucy to Mexico. Bradley soon starts showing up with a battered spouse's injuries and explanations: a black eye (oh, he just walked into a door) and a broken arm and crutches (fell down the stairs). Soon Mr. Marmalade starts showing up wired to the gills and emptying blow on his briefcase, which, during a fight with Lucy, accidentally spills open and spits out a stash of dildos that makes you think his next stop is that absolutely terrifying "party" Jennifer Connelly works at the end of

Requiem for a Dream

.

Who was the man in Lucy's life that provided this portrait of what a grown man is? The play wisely never tries to explain Lucy's situation, merely dramatizes what it might be like to see the world through her eyes. That might be why the lone person in the play who kinda/sorta understands her is 5-year-old Larry (Jonathan Jacobs). He's the younger step-brother to the dude her babysitter invites over. They leave Lucy and Larry by themselves, and their conversation runs from expectedly simple-what's kindergarten like?-to the WTF. Lucy asks Larry what the bandages on his wrists are from and he tells her that he was the youngest suicide attempt in state's history.

The play bounces from bleak to bizarre and back again at a dizzying rate, which can feel disorienting if you forget that it's unfolding at the accelerated immediacy of childhood, where everything seems to take place in the imperative voice and a short time can feel like forever (Are we there yet?). The play takes place only over the course of one night into morning, and yet, during that time, Lucy play-acts adult lives with both Mr. Marmalade and Larry; has knock-down, drag-out fights with both; and imagines a time where she and Mr. Marmalade are married, living together in a house not too far removed from the one she lives in now, and he can't stand the incessant crying of their baby. And instead of watching him walk out the door, she wants to show him that she can make the baby stop crying. Forever. And she can. And she does. And just where did she get the idea that knives are a way to soothe crying? And what did Montaigne say about children again, that they're never more serious than when they play? Mr. Marmalade gamely finds the comedy in such serious play, and we laugh to keep from being horrified to our very core.

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