Black comedy is a delicate art, an attempt to find humor in situations or issues that would make your skin crawl.
It’s a brave soul that even attempts to bring a black comedy to the stage, with pretty much even odds that the audience is either going to get and appreciate it, or not.
Jim Farrell, the artistic director of the year-old Splinter Group, does not want for bravery, as he stepped out on a ledge with "Mr. Marmalade," a play by Noah Haidle, one of the darlings of the au courant artistic set.
Farrell mounted this show with some outstanding Milwaukee actors, including Karen Estrada, Bryce Lord, Emily Vitrano and the always irrepressible Nate Press.
Estrada plays Lucy, a 4-year-old with an imaginary friend named Mr. Marmalade and enough personal complexes and issues to fill any psychiatric ward.
In a way, the theory behind the play is admirable. Take Lucy and give her a whole bunch of experiences that are more suited to adults on massive drug cocktails than to a 4-year-old, no matter how precocious.
Unfortunately, "Mr. Marmalade" – which runs through April 19 – is just too much of a one trick pony.
At some point, I whispered to myself, "Okay. I get it. She’s 4. She talks about suicide and sex and drug use and child abuse. Now, tell me something I can believe and care about."
The problem with this play – and this cast did all it could to lift it from its limbo – is that nobody did anything that made me give a hoot about what happened to them.
Zach Thomas Woods plays Mr. Marmalade, perhaps one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever seen. He moves from gentle tea parties to cocaine abuse, child abuse and creating the kind of tension that ends in the death of a baby. It’s impossible to see what Lucy sees in him.
It’s not enough that Lucy is just lonely and has created Mr. Marmalade to fill some vacant lot in the panorama of her life. If she created him, she would give him something that attracts her.
The cast does some heroic work to breathe life into this production.
Estrada is her usual smart and committed self as Lucy. She mixes childishness with the craven adult with aplomb.
Lord is an absolute marvel to watch as Bradley, the personal assistant to Mr. Marmalade. He loves Lucy but is solidly protective of his own life and Lord carefully helps Bradley straddle at least a couple of lifelines.
Vitrano is truly on the verge of becoming a member of the top tier of young Milwaukee actors. Here, she takes a turn as both Lucy’s horny babysitter and as Lucy’s mom. Vitrano has a great gift for comedic timing and clearly understands how important it is for actors to listen to each other on stage.
Press plays Larry, a 5-year-old boy who becomes the fancy of Lucy’s heart. With his bandaged wrists, he proudly tells her that he is the "youngest person to attempt suicide in New Jersey." There is an intimacy to Press that makes you want to give him a hug.
Even these performances, and the fine work done by the rest of the cast, can’t pull the play out if its black hole. Even fantasy or black comedy or plays far removed from realism need to give the audience a reason to care.
The other thing about a black comedy is that it needs to have comedy. "Mr. Marmalade" has some funny moments, but the jokes are cheap and somehow unsurprising. It’s almost like a bad "Saturday Night Live" skit that goes on and on and on.
In the notes to the play, the program has a statement about the play from Haidle:
"Part of the enjoyment of watching 'Mr. Marmalade' is watching a 20-something actor play a 4-year-old and walk around in a tutu. Your imagination has to work harder as an audience member than it would watching film or TV. The conceit that this 4-year-old has an imaginary friend who ends up acting like an abusive husband is very funny I think."
I’m glad he thinks it’s funny. It would be a shame if nobody did.
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Dec. 16, 2014
How do you explain why a hot, successful team like the Green Bay Packers lose to the Buffalo Bills when there is so much at stake? It's a complicated answer, but it isn't just statistics or even motivation that seem to be the problem. A loss like that may not even be avoidable at some point.
Published Dec. 14, 2014
The sixth edition of "Who Killed Santa" by the Umbrella Group has become a highlight of the holiday season in Milwaukee. But unlike almost all the other traditions, this one not only takes the gloves off, it never even had any gloves. If you like your humor both funny and raunchy, this show is just for you.
Published Dec. 13, 2014
A 50-year-old play about race seems like a perfect fit for the discussions raging across American today. And while the play has lessons, they get lost in too many amateur moments in the production by World's Stage Theatre Company.
Published Dec. 11, 2014
"A Christmas Carol" is a story well over 110 years old but it still has a magic and the MilwaukeeRep manages to find new pieces to keep the audience delighted. It is running for the 39th consecutive year at The gorgeous Pabst Theater.
Published Dec. 11, 2014
Cases in New York, Ferguson and Cleveland are getting a whole lot more press than the case of Dontre Hamilton here in Milwaukee, It sure seems like his story deserves to be right up there with the others.
Published Dec. 10, 2014
This is the season when thousands of people try to do something special for those less fortunate. There are lots of good causes out there, but a tiny South Side church runs programs for the homeless and it has a very special fundraiser coming up.
Published Dec. 9, 2014
Marquette has always had a pretty good basketball program but there is something about the whole thing that doesn't inspire love. As a matter of fact, in some quarters, it's very easy to hate the Golden Eagles.
Published Dec. 5, 2014
Hillary Clinton wants to be president and somebody thought they ought to write a country song about it all. The song stands no chance of finding it's way onto the Billboard charts and is really the most trite example of country music. They ought to be ashamed.
Published Dec. 5, 2014
Once again the beautiful story of "The Nutcracker" will sail into Uihlein Hall for the holidays. It's a spectacular and warm show for the entire family. It's especially fun for all those little girls in black leotards who dream of being a dancer someday.
Published Dec. 4, 2014
Someplace along the line we decided that if we change Christmas cards to holiday greetings we thought that we'd be safe from accusations of discrimination. That kind of political correctness does nothing for the spirit of the season or for those who don't celebrate. Let's be honest about differing faiths and enjoy each of them.