Piss N Vinegar

Urinetown, Mr. Marmalade and the power of imagination

Henry Dirocco/SCRUrinetown is huge in New York. The play is Rentfor the SimpsonsGeneration, just edgy enough to make people who hate everything about the Great American Musical believe they're seeing something truly daring and cutting-edge. The concept (a 20-year drought has turned water—and therefore piss—into pure gold), the leading man who dies, the leading lady who spends most of the second act bound and gagged, and urine playing such a big role in the play is certainly a far cry from the exploits of Eliza Doolittle and beautiful mornings in the Oklahoma panhandle.

Based on the performance that just closed at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, however, it's clear Urinetown's success is less a credit to its novel originality and toilet-humor subject matter than the sad, sorry fact that so much of what passes as entertainment on Broadway really does smell, feel and look like piss. In Urinetown, like in every other goddamn musical, people inexplicably break into song, flit about the stage and basically act like complete idiots. If this is the most revolutionary musical to ever grace Broadway, start the revolution without me.

By contrast, Mr. Marmaladeat South Coast Repertory displays the vigor and staggering power that a straight play can deliver when done well. And by straight, I mean theater that ain't song and dance. It's doubtful many plays at SCR have featured a scene as jaw dropping as the one in which a four-year-old girl is called a fucking cunt by an imaginary man who has just whiffed a line of blow.

Playwright Noah Haidle is a 25-year-old who has crafted an apparently simple but convincingly unnerving play about a little girl whose imaginary friends and imaginarily bucolic home life are coping mechanisms designed to help her deal with brutal reality. It's both a stirring elegy and a haunting examination of loneliness and desperate measures.

Mr. Marmaladeis a play worth seeing—mostly because of what you don't see and hear. You're never quite sure of what's going on, who certain people are (actors are in and out of multiple roles), or what's real and what's not. Haidle's gift is in making us care deeply and sincerely for whatever the hell it is that's happening onstage.

The cast is uniformly excellent (with Eliza Pryor Nagel's Lucy shining brightest), but Haidle has achieved a rather remarkable feat: he's the star of his own play. It's his own rich imagination—from his melding of Lucy's reality and fantasy life to the fact that a man-sized sunflower wants to grow up to build submarines—that drives this play and makes it so different. There's also an undeniable thread of sadness and searching; Lucy's struggle is the struggle of anyone who dreams of a better life but finds reality just a bit too difficult at times.

Their newness isn't the only parallel between Mr. Marmaladeand Urinetown: there's also the promise of escape from those harsh realities. Death, symbolic of course, plays a key role in both productions. In the musical, it's the death of a revolutionary firebrand who wakes the rest of his city up to the fact that Urinetown isn't a place as much as a state of mind afflicting anyone who lives in fear. In Haidle's play, it's the death of a part of the imagination that, while offering us comfort in the moment, is also stifling a vital part of our soul from growing. Only through shedding that illusion, of letting go of that pain that feels so familiar and comfortable, can we hope—as Lucy's final, huge smile in Mr. Marmalade's happy ending seems to indicate—there's something more than what we've been given and something more that we deserve.

The world premiere of Mr. Marmalade at South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 P.m. Through May 16. $27-$55; pay what you will, Sat.-Sun.
 
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