It was on a plane from Los Angeles back to New York that Michael C. Hall, known to millions as the dead-serious, self-contained and uptight David Fisher of television's Six Feet Under, began reading the script of a play called Mr. Marmalade that his agent had sent him.
The part the actor had been offered was that of Mr. Marmalade himself, the grown-up imaginary friend—and lover and husband—of a four-year-old girl named Lucy. Mr. Marmalade has a personal assistant, a sort of valet and travel scheduler named Bradley. Lucy's mother sleeps around a bit. Emily, the teenaged baby-sitter, is too busy screwing to keep an eye on Lucy—who, betimes, is playing doctor, which is to say exploring bodies, with a five-year-old, suicide-prone boy named Larry.
"I was sort of leaning forward as I read," Hall says. "I didn't know anything about the author"—Princeton and Juilliard graduate Noah Haidle—"and all I'd been told about the play was that it was not conventional. Yet in spite of its uniqueness, and its surprising changes in scene and character, I found it to be very straightforward. I was very taken with it."
Nor did Hall know Mamie Gummer, the actress who'd be playing four-year-old Lucy in the Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre here in New York. He did know "that for one reason or another" he wanted to work with director Michael Greif. Nine years ago, himself just out of NYU with an MFA, Hall auditioned for a road company of Rent, directed, as was the original, by Michael Greif. There was a girl there named Amy Spanger—a young actress-singer from Newbury, Mass. "She got a job; I didn't." But he got her. Mr. and Mrs. Michael C. Hall are downtown New Yorkers "right between Tribeca and Chinatown." You may have seen them onstage together one recent summer as the Billy Flynn and the Roxie Hart of Broadway's Chicago.
A job Hall did get was to follow Alan Cumming into the role of the caustic, rotten-to-the-core Emcee in the Roundabout Cabaret at Studio 54. It was while Hall was in that role that a script came his way for an upcoming series about a family in the mortuary business. "I was taken with it," he says again—in particular "with the interestingly conflicted and thus inherently dramatic" personality of David Fisher. "Thought I saw a lot of opportunity for development and growth."
Does he see anything of David Fisher—of what he speaks of as "David's pretzel moves" — in himself?
"I suppose I have some access to the wound-up part of me, though I do think I'm more relaxed."
Michael Carlyle Hall's mother is head of guidance and dean of students at a high school in Wake Forest, North Carolina. "She's seen my bare ass with a red swastika on it," and she's seen him pretzeling himself as David Fisher. "So I guess it's all downhill from here." Except for people who like marmalade.