New Comedy Mr. Marmalade Causes Stir — and Controversy — in Off-Broadway Debut

News   New Comedy Mr. Marmalade Causes Stir — and Controversy — in Off-Broadway Debut "Some audiences really dislike it," young playwright Noah Haidle told Playbill.com about his work Mr. Marmalade, which opens its Off-Broadway debut Nov. 20.

"I was in a row last night where three people left and they had to get around me," said the recent Juilliard graduate, who adds "Off-Broadway debut" to his resume three years before his 30th birthday.

Mr. Marmalade, according to director Michael Greif (Rent, The Distance From Here), is "about a lonely four-year-old girl, portrayed by an adult, who has imaginary friends and, with her fantasy play, works through some very serious, very surprising, very unexpected, adult-like problems that this young girl might have inappropriately encountered."

The risque material — which delves into sexuality, drug use, brutality and more — is peppered among the youngster's tea parties, conversations with her absent mother and negligent teen babysitter, a game of doctor with a new (equally troubled) friend and an all-out junk-food fight, the cleanup of which is as inventive as the actual melee.

While the scribe offers an unruffled response — "Bobby Brown said it: It's their prerogative" — to those who walk out on his work, director Greif purports, "I think the work can be very tough. I think some people are unable to get beyond the 'four-year old-ness' of the main character [which] I really feel becomes emblematic of childhood in general. I think when people get caught up in what a four-year-old or a two-year-old could most realistically perceive or understand, they might find going on the journey of the play difficult."

Greif, who was seated next to the author on the aforementioned night, also believes others may find "some of Lucy's friends' behavior to her cruel and distasteful. And I would hope those people would actually stay the course because they would see why the extremity of some of that cruelty is necessary. And they would better understand the source of that cruelty." The conclusion of the work does offer a positive coda, as the director puts it: "There are steps toward health and happiness in the play that are important meaningful to me. I'm happy that the play ends where it ends." Mr. Marmalade was originally aimed at a younger audience. "I was in my first year at Juilliard, where I studied playwriting, and I wanted to get a show into the fourth year repertory season and I was pretty friendly with the third-year actors at the time," Haidle said about the inspiration for writing the work. "So I went to the literary manager and asked what would be a good cast size for you to do a show and he said two women and four men."

Armed with his cast size, Haidle — in a very Shakespearean manner — sat at his typewriter and wrote to his actors' strengths (or whim). "My girlfriend said she always wanted to be onstage in a tutu, so [Lucy] was in a tutu," Haidle said. "Then there was a guy who was really great at being mean and angry on stage, so [he] became Mr. Marmalade."

Though his play would never see the student rep stage, it would be picked up by South Coast Repertory for a its world premiere staging. And following other regional premieres of his Rag and Bone (at the Long Wharf Theatre, under the direction of Tina Landau) and Princess Majorie (again at SCR), Mr. Marmalade found a home in New York.

Greif, who had heard of the young scribe and sought out his agent and read his other work, felt lucky to be able to take helm of the play when it became available. "I thought that he's really an original voice," Greif said. "I love the way he saw the world and I love the way that the plays were so theatrical."

"I had to write my mantra of theatre," said Haidle. "I summed it up in three words which I stole from Thorton Wilder's description of his third act of Our Town which was 'Scorn on verisimilitude.' I don't usually think when I sit down to write 'Ooh, here we go: scorn on verisimilitude!' But, I just think that when you're writing for theatre, you should write for theatre and exploit the medium as much as you can so that it can't translate. I think that Mr. Marmalade or any of my plays would make terrible TV shows [or] terrible movies. And I think that means that I'm doing something successfully."

Haidle said he feels some of his best work in Mr. Marmalade is the unheard dialogue delivered during the food-fight cleanup scene by the title character (as played by Michael C. Hall):

Yeah, Rita's a real character. She has a tattoo on her upper inner thigh that says "Slippery When Wet." You're probably wondering how I know that; we were in a bar getting wasted doing Tequila shooters when she like took down her pants and I was like, "'Whoa, Rita, you're my best friend's girlfriend, I don't want to see your upper inner thigh."

"None of it is supposed to be heard." Haidle said, "but I think it's some of the best writing in the play."

Tickets for Mr. Marmalade at the Laura Pels Theatre, located at 111 West 46th Street are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300. For more information, go online to www.roundabouttheatre.org.

Mamie Gummer and Michael C. Hall in <i>Mr. Marmalade</i>.
Mamie Gummer and Michael C. Hall in Mr. Marmalade. Photo by Joan Marcus