“Mr. Marmalade” is the play that put playwright Noah Haidle on the map and director Krissy Vanderwarker’s perfect production for Dog & Pony at the Storefront Theater shows you why. It concerns the relationship between a lonely 4-year-old named Lucy and her invented companion—a cocaine-sniffing and porno-loving character that is to imaginary friends what “Jurassic Park”’s T-Rex is to Barney—and this sometimes twisted yet always entertaining teeter-totter of a play never stops vacillating between the real and the imagined, the sweet and the sadistic, the hilarious and the heartfelt. Accordingly, this “Marmalade” boasts—as does Haidle’s highly original, whimsical and scatological writing—the perfect balance between playfulness and pathos thanks to beautifully observed performances: an exceptionally strong cast is led by the sweetly rambunctious Kelly O’Sullivan as Lucy and the riveting Dieterich Gray in the title role. From the skewed proscenium to the giant slide that figures prominently center-stage, from the candy-colored props that “pop” the set to the slide whistles that announce Mr. M’s magical arrivals, one feels immediately transported to an “Alice in Wonderland”-type tea party. Just don’t forget that in Haidle’s world, that tea is probably laced with something besides sugar. Vanderwarker must also be praised for guiding her cast through the play’s biggest challenge. Clearly, young adult actors O’Sullivan and John Dixon as Larry—Lucy’s 5-year-old friend who also holds the title of “youngest suicide attempt in New Jersey”—understand the key to successfully portraying pre-schoolers on the stage. Push the childlike petulance too much, and the language during the play’s devastatingly mature exchanges feels self-conscious and unbelievable. Make Lucy and Larry too self-knowing during their adult-like allegorical passages, and you risk losing the play’s sense of childlike wonderment and subtle hint of hopefulness. But they’ve nailed it. As has Dog & Pony with a “Mr. Marmalade” that may want to make you dub Haidle the theater’s “Marquis de Seuss.” (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
“Mr. Marmalade” runs at Storefront Theater, 66 East Randolph Street, (312)742-8497, through May 5.