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Friend is a far cry from Mr. Snuffleupagus

Weekend!Arts: Theatre Review
by: ©2006 OWEN CAREY, Little Lucy (Laura Faye Smith) discovers that her imaginary friend (Tim True) has some rather unsavory habits in “Mr. Marmalade.”

For most of Noah Haidle's sometimes harrowing play, it looks like the playwright has all but given up hope.

In his world, men are a losing proposition, either ineffectual milquetoasts or self-absorbed louts, never more than a hairbreadth from savagery.

Women, like the mother of 4-year-old Lucy, don't fare so well either. Mom's futile pursuit of anything resembling Mr. Right leaves the girl alone, forced to conjure fantasy companions like the troublesome suitor of the play's title.

An imaginary friend is one thing, but Lucy's Mr. Marmalade is reconstructed from the scars of abandonment, bad relationships and hollow TV culture. A monster, in other words. His princely moments only make him scarier when he suddenly becomes a hateful, drunken abuser.

For a time, it seems Lucy will find salvation in a real-world friend, 5-year-old Larry. But he proves unreliable, too, and she sends him packing. Only after a disastrous episode with Mr. Marmalade, who returns penitent from rehab, will we learn what the playwright has in store for a child's innocence. Or our own.

Haidle's play received a thorough whipping when it opened off-Broadway a year ago. Critics said the playwright avoided honest examination of the play's core issues while putting implausibly mature dialogue into the mouths of babes.

In this production, Lucy seems merely a metaphor, a stand-in for the dewy-eyed hope in all of us that we will be loved. The kiddie humor - not always terribly funny - effectively reinforces our vulnerability, which comes in for a beating in the play's grimmer moments.

Director Jon Kretzu and the solid cast keep the dark adventure on track throughout a bumpy ride. Lead actors Laura Faye Smith and Tim True are excellent in very tricky roles, and Heather Nelson Robertson, Chase Stoeger and Eleanor O'Brien are terrific in support, the last in a hysterical double turn as a fatuous teen baby sitter and a guy fresh off an overnighter with Lucy's mom.

- Eric Bartels

8 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. SUNDAY, 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, through Nov. 19, Artists Repertory Theatre Second Stage, 1516 S.W. Alder St., 503-241-1278, www.artistsrep.org, $15-$40