Spinning Out of Control

Noah Haidle penetrates; Andrew Lloyd Webber nauseates

To see the truth of your life, watch as it is replicated in the play of a child. That’s the central conceit of Noah Haidle’s trenchant and disturbing play, “Mr. Marmalade.” The play is a remarkable work of social criticism that skewers the selfishness, carelessness, and emotional violence that is an endemic part of modern culture. Refracted through the imagination of four-year-old Lucy, we see how cell phones, casual sex, and ignoring one another corrode social structures. At the same time, it is a grim forecast of a future when children raised in this emotionally irresponsible fashion will be ill-equipped to face the challenges of adult life.

Haidle tells this story through the trials of Lucy as she interacts with her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade and his imaginary personal assistant Bradley. It becomes immediately apparent that Lucy’s divorced mother Sookie and her unseen father had a relationship of emotional and physical violence, and Lucy was caught in the crossfire. Lucy’s relationship with Mr. Marmalade is at best tendentious, and he swings from violence to loving protestations as fast as Lucy’s little imagination can work.

Yet Haidle’s real skill is in showing us how carelessly and automatically Lucy parrots family arguments that were grotesque and sexual, how commonplace her speech patterns and lapsing into really damaging violence has become. The horror is not merely that her parents were emotionally incompetent, but that a child was exposed to this as the reality of her world. And yet, this is part of today’s world where reality TV thrives on meanness and we revel in the heartbreak of celebrities’ shattered marriages. Haidle in his abstract and quasi-absurdist play takes on the pernicious and pervasive spiritual corruption he sees.

He is not without hope, however. When Lucy gets a friend, Larry, at the end we see that bright, shining moment of hope, but it is fleeting and one doubts if it can be maintained in the context of Lucy’s world. It reminds one of the end of David Hare’s brilliant 1983 play “Plenty” when at the end the set opened up to a perfect past. In both, the halcyon is glimpsed fleetingly, and though a moment of sunlight mitigates the gloom, the damage is done.

Michael Grief has directed the play with a flair for the comic and absurd that never overwhelms the deeper, sadder themes of the play. Michael C. Hall as Mr. Marmalade turns in a strong performance, but there is nothing really surprising in it as the part is written as a foil to Lucy. Paolo Schreiber does a fine job as Larry, the suicidal little boy who ultimately befriends Lucy and rescues her from her isolation.

Yet it is Mamie Gummer as Lucy who is a revelation. She approaches the cadences and behaviors of a four-year-old with a kind of specificity that is constantly remarkable. From her screams to her logic to the speed with which she swings from one moment to the next, anyone who has ever been around a child of this age for long will relate. I have not been so impressed with an actress’s ability to embody a character so completely since the first time I saw Cherry Jones; she’s that good. Because she is so wonderful in the role, the horror of Lucy’s world resonates long after the curtain falls.

A zoetrope is a rudimentary animation device in which a strip of paper is placed within a cylinder that has narrow windows cut in it. The paper has a sequential series of drawings on it, and when the zoetrope is spun and one looks through the windows, it tricks the eye with the illusion of animation. It is remarkable but limited as the same sequence merely repeats again and again and again as long as the zoetrope is spinning.

A spinning zoetrope is the last image projected on the front wall of the set for “The Woman in White” before the show begins. We are supposed to feel that we are entering an old movie, but it comes off as an ironic jab at the audience who, for the next two-and-a-half hours, will sit and watch as this thoroughly inept musical spins incessantly in front of them.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written what is easily his worst score ever. Derivative—to the point of borrowing badly from himself—and poorly structured, there isn’t a complete song in the score. It is full of unresolved melodic lines and soaring chords but there’s not a valid emotion in any of it. The only things to be said of David Zippel’s tattered doggerel presented as lyrics is that they are as immature as the music—full of groaning, plodding rhymes and forced cadences. Charlotte Jones’ reprehensible book makes a chopped up mockery of the original Wilkie Collins gothic thriller, and is as clumsy in the disjointed narrative as possible.

Even the presence of such stalwart musical theater stars as Ron Bohmer, Michael Ball, and Adam Brazier—all whom are in excellent voice with flawless technique—ultimately counts for nothing. They don’t stand a chance against the abysmal material. The women fare worse, and it’s not their fault either. Maria Friedman, the actress recently diagnosed with cancer, was out of the role of Marion at the performance I saw. Lisa Brescia provided the sinus-clearing caterwauling of one of the three heroines. From this soprano trio—Angela Christian and Jill Paice round out the glass-shattering girl group—Lord Lloyd Webber has demanded screaming and high notes that could drop a dog at 40 paces, and all three oblige. Though one can’t fault them on technique or pitch during these hell-canto eruptions, Mick Potter’s sound design is so atrocious it is often impossible to tell which harpy is baying, or to make out the lyrics, which as noted, is not a huge loss.

The show has made headlines because instead of conventional sets, the locations are all done in projections. Structured to be circular like the zoetrope, the projections spin in and out as the undeveloped scenes whiz by, often changing so frequently that they obscure any sense of place or logic. Pictures come in and out of focus, and do so with such speed that for the first 20 minutes of the show, until I learned to look away as the projections changed, I had motion sickness.

What is really nauseating is the fact that all this technology removes any possible humanity from the show. The actors are dwarfed by the slideshow, and look like they are adrift in a video game. The focus is on the technological achievement, and while it’s impressive it does not serve the story. Perhaps a show with a trace of human substance could stand up to this, but not this one. It’s all about the soulless mechanics, and it’s all for nothing.

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