FEAR FACTOR Belli and Quinn in Mr. Marmalade.
On which side does one put the but? Is Mr. Marmalade dark but life-affirming, or life-affirming but dark? I guess it depends on your tolerance for grim realities.
Written by Noah Haidle, the play is also funny, basically, in a you gotta laugh or you're gonna cry sort of way. Epic Theatre Company is presenting the Rhode Island premiere through November 25, with Ross Gavlin directing its 70 briskly paced, smartly cast, and marvelously acted minutes.
Lucy (Vanessa Blanchette) is four years old and going on 24. She has an active imagination in the same worrisome way that Mount Pinatubo is an active volcano. You don't know what will spill forth. She has an imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade (Jason Quinn), quite unlike those of most children, the least disturbing aspect of which is that he is an impatient, angry grown-up.
The two actors couldn't be more on the money for their characters. Blanchette is diminutive, with a high-pitched voice that naturally sounds childlike, sprouting pigtails and wearing a Hello Kitty T-shirt. Quinn is a large, hulking presence that makes Mr. Marmalade appear even more sinister by contrast, especially in his funereal black business suit.
You know how children sometimes mimic what they hear parents saying, processing and practicing their gender roles? Well, Lucy is patiently trying to cope — having a coffee party rather than a tea party — with an imaginary, ill-tempered, cocaine-sniffing husband who is always impatient to get back to the office. No amount of calm cajoling will get him to take some time off so they can fly to Mexico and vacation in Cabo. But we start worrying when she asks, "How come you don't touch me anymore?"
We look as much to her diner waitress mother (Sarah Barlow) to figure her out. This is a single mom who asks her four-year-old which dress she should wear on a date, making us wonder whether giving respect and responsibility to a kid in this instance is a way to shrug off her own responsibility. This mom is also careless about whom she gets for a babysitter (also played by Barlow). When it's the teenager's turn to ask how she looks for her date, Lucy instantly quips: "Easy." This babysitter would rather watch TV than pay attention to Lucy, not to mention go off to have sex with her creepy boyfriend, George (Joshua Christensen, who is very good: when he appeared later as a happy-go-lucky character — an imaginary cactus, actually — at first I thought he was a different actor). Cactus and Flower (Barlow) are imaginary friends, a yin-yang existential coping mechanism, that Lucy's young friend Larry introduces to her. (But why is Cactus smiling?)
Since Mr. Marmalade is always so busy, Lucy imagines an assistant for him, Bradley (T.C. Belli), who also announces and humorously describes upcoming scenes for us. At one point, Bradley is wearing sunglasses to hide black eyes that her boss gave her for not assisting well enough. A good sign is that Lucy threatens to call the police if Mr. Marmalade hits her again. We are cued to Lucy coming out of this well by the end.