Imaginary Fiends

With friends like these—oh, boy. Two new stage productions—each disquieting, amusing and refreshingly brief—explore the absurd lengths to which some lonely souls go to find a boon companion. The surprise in both works is what happens when the relationship goes wonky.

Take Lucy, a plucky 4-year-old played by adult actress Tina Parker. Left to fend for herself by a neglectful mom and a thong-baring teenage babysitter (both played by Leah Spillman), Lucy seeks refuge from boredom in the form of a handsome, attentive businessman (Christopher Carlos) who exists only in her imagination. This is Kitchen Dog Theater's Mr. Marmalade, playwright Noah Haidle's 75-minute skip into the mind of a precocious tyke who has absorbed enough of the grown-up world to conjure a suave playmate with cocaine problems and a briefcase stuffed with porn and sex toys.

Filling out a pink tutu and Hello Kitty jammies like a cross between 1930s child actress Jane Withers and ever-childish plump-grump Roseanne Barr, Parker becomes a baby Medea, eyes burning with the early stages of crazy. She's chirpy enough playing pretend house with Mr. Marmalade, parroting the "Honey, I'm home" conversations of sitcom moms and dads. If only her man would cooperate, they could live happily ever after amid a pile of sticky Barbies and busted candy necklaces. But no, he turns abusive. Even after rehab and a "give me a second chance" speech, he's clearly no dream date. "Let's play doctor," he growls to Lucy, loosening his tie. "C'mere, my prostate hurts."

Yes, it goes there and to many other creepy places that plays starring little girls in tutus typically dare not. But that's the delightfully dirty-wonderful thing about Mr. Marmalade—that it isn't about real children at all but about the world of information that big boys and girls let their little ones be privy to, even when parents think they're carefully editing life's R-rated content. Lucy's vocabulary brims with knowing references to dinners at Nobu and bipolar disorder, like she's grown up on a steady diet of Sex & the City instead of Sesame Street. When she invites her play-like beau to a tea party, she whines to him, "You don't touch me anymore!"

Lucy does make a living and (adenoidally) breathing peer-pal, a chronically depressed pre-schooler named Larry (Michael Federico) who brags that he's the youngest suicide survivor in the history of New Jersey (and wears the wrist bandages to prove it). Larry mopes that his parents are always telling him to "enjoy your childhood while it lasts." Fat chance, he says. "I don't enjoy this at all." He's planned his own open casket funeral with a reception featuring Cheetos and chocolate milk.

With a seamless blending of the sadly familiar and the boldly fanciful, Mr. Marmalade is most toothsome in the scenes where, like little Charles Addams characters, Lucy and Larry compare the horrors of their respective childhoods. Here, Parker, a fine actress who's been absent from KDT's stage for two years, and Federico, an SMU theater grad imported from Austin for this production, really click under the direction of Aaron Ginsburg. Remarkable how these actors in their 30s throw themselves around so unselfconsciously, like wiggly young 'uns in the throes of sugar overload.

When Lucy at last makes the skeevy Mr. Marmalade and his officious assistant Bradley (Cameron Cobb) skedaddle, it's to make time for a game of dodgeball with Larry. Childhood comes with all manner of confrontations, writer Haidle seems to say. The trick to getting out of the wonder years alive is learning to survive hurtful blows, real and imagined.

New friends Lawrence & Holloman have only just met when we first lay eyes on them in Canadian playwright Lawrence Panych's fast and funny two-man one-act, now onstage at Second Thought Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre. Lawrence, played by devilishly good-looking Ian Leson, struts with the smug assurance of a man to whom no woman or office underling ever says no. Everything's coming up posies for Lawrence. Yessirree. Career, rich fiancée, nice wheels—check, check, check. So why do so many bad things start happening to this guy? And how does he stay so unfailingly sunny about his future even when, by the end, he's lost just about everything?

For a while, nihilistic Holloman, played by über-nebbish Chad Gowan Spear, appears willing to bask in the blinding glow of his pal's high-wattage personality. "You're a white bread and bologna type of guy, Holloman," says Lawrence, who utters putdowns with the same mindless facility of a Dunder-Mifflin middle manager. Then Holloman starts to give some of his own back, though revenge for him will not be sweet.

Panych's pair might be sons or grandsons of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's classic absurdist comedy Waiting for Godot. Or maybe they're just Lenny and Squiggy, ruminating on the meaning of life with smarter dialogue than they were allowed on Laverne & Shirley. (Lawrence, the handsome idiot, bemoans the "doggie dog world of commission sales." Holloman tries to correct him and can't.)

Nobody is what he seems in this play, directed for Second Thought by Marianne Galloway. Even the play isn't what it seems. Just try to guess where it's going. You can't, not a minute. Even the set by designer Clare Floyd DeVries and Ara Walter holds some secrets that only are revealed in the final minutes. And yowza, what a finish. Hooray for originality.

No marching bands, baton twirlers or giant balloons cross the stage in the musical Parade, now playing at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. There is a child murder, a chain gang and a lynch mob. Sound fun? Only if you consider Les Miserables a happy, peppy musical comedy, in which case Parade is a hoot and a holler.

With book by Alfred Uhry (who wrote the straight plays Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night at Ballyhoo) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (composer of The Last Five Years), Parade puts 25 tuneless songs to the real story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who in 1913 Atlanta was convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old worker named Mary Phagan. It's a famous case involving anti-Semitism and miscarriage of justice that often is credited as inspiring the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South and as the impetus for the creation of the Anti-Defamation League.

Interesting story, to be sure, but made into musical theater, Parade, first produced in New York in 1998, is like watching 28 actors and actresses sing the transcript of the Nuremberg trials. WaterTower's production, directed by James Paul Lemons, is a colorless, turgid mess dragging out over 155 minutes.

Among the large cast, Matthew Johnson, Eleanor T. Threatt, Wilbur Penn and Walter Cunningham rise above the mediocre material with some thrilling singing—but they only get a scant two or three minutes in the spotlight. The rest of the time we're stuck with Donald Fowler, one of Dallas theater's most reliable musical leads, miscast as Leo Frank and playing him like a quivering Casper Milquetoast. Fowler's voice is so tremulous his dialogue is hard to hear and his singing is hampered by a crackly head-mike.

As Leo's Jewish debutante wife Lucille, Jennifer Pasion exhibits a shrieky soprano that falls far short of too many high notes. Perhaps she's in pain from the weight of a wig that resembles the largest dirt-dauber nest south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Visually, the production looks like it ran sorely short of cash for sets and costumes. Perhaps scenic artist Clare Floyd DeVries was so busy building the detailed three-dimensional collage for Lawrence & Holloman (playing in the theater next door) that she ran out of ideas for Parade. On simple multi-level scaffolding, the large cast of the musical perches like an unkindness of ravens.

Costumer Michael A. Robinson throws any old schmattes on the guys and gals of turn-of-the-century Atlanta, whether they fit the period or the actors or not. This costumer, as he has in so many productions, forces the women onstage to don wigs and dresses that make even the prettiest among them look like hell.

By the time the mob brings out the noose at the end of Parade, you'll be muttering "Hang 'em, hang 'em all."