By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Apr 07, 2014 at 2:06 PM

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.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.