Mr. Marmalade Is the Best Bad Friend Ever

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When we were around 13 or 15 years old, we frequently and solemnly swore that whatever else happened, we'd remember what it was like to be a kid. We knew adults who remembered and we knew those who apparently didn't, and we'd sooner die than grow up to be the latter.

It's been pretty cool to review a couple of plays in a row where adult writers, actors, and directors obviously are among the former: Broadway Palm's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (still running in east Mesa) and the riveting, hysterical, messy, but completely clear Mr. Marmalade, currently presented by new company NewBrave Theatre in new digs, Venue 104 Performance Cafe, next to the Improv at Tempe's Cornerstone.

This ability to keep the child in one's heart and mind is the key, I think, to Marmalade's success. Like its 4-year-old heroine, Lucy (Kerry McCue), the play never stops running around, never stops talking and singing and yelling, keeps on playing until it drops, exhausted, in its tracks.

The way Tim Shawver has cast, conceived, and directed this thing, and the way his actors bring it to tacky, visceral life, is right up there with the most compelling performances I've ever seen (which I don't need two full hands to count). And it's definitely the absolutely funniest thing I've also been this profoundly moved, delighted, frightened, and a little squicked out by.

It isn't just that Lucy applies an amusing and troubling degree of knowledge from certain circles of both real adult life and pop culture to her mostly solitary play. (You know, the part where her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade is a drug-using, moody, manipulative workaholic who doesn't even really have time for her.)

And it's not just that McCue is acting her ass off to the point where we don't even notice that maybe even a very precocious and intelligent child wouldn't behave this way. She is Lucy, she is real, and you're getting your ass beat if you dare not to believe it for a moment.

Nope, the heartbreaker is that your imagination need not stretch at all to be entirely, if not willingly, aware of exactly what's going on in Lucy's own life to drive her cathartic fantasies. She's not dissociative; she's probably not sick; she's most likely going to bounce back as well as anybody (partly because some of her other imaginary friends have their heads on a lot straighter than Mr. M). But oh, is she ever lonely and scared sometimes.

But you can't stop laughing, either, because this shit is so fresh and perfect. Bam, bam, bam -- author Noah Haidle throws conceit after conceit at you, pushing envelopes, letting things reach their logical conclusions, making it all seem so obvious and sensible (therefore, ridiculous) and, thanks to Shawver, set designer Chase Budden, and the rest of the uniformly genius cast, seamless.

There's a sweet lobby at Venue 104, if you like arriving early, with the option to order coffee drinks and sandwiches with cute names. Once you've gotten your ticket and, if you're over 21, your wristband, and the theater proper opens its doors, you can choose from several different loungey seating arrangements and purchase beer and wine. It's all good, and I mean that in the literal sense.

Mr. Marmalade continues through Saturday, October 1, at 940 East University Drive, Suite 102, in Tempe. For tickets, $10 to $16, click here or call 480-256-0166.

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