Abuse never looked so fun. Victoria Lahti

Mr. Marmalade

Washington Ensemble Theatre

Through March 16.

Imaginary friends don't get much worse than Mr. Marmalade. A jackass businessman with a serious cocaine problem, Mr. Marmalade always arrives late and leaves early and when he's not neglectful, he's abusive. "Let's play house!" he shouts at his imaginer, a 4-year-old named Lucy. "How was work today? It sucked balls, but someone's got to provide for this fucking family, you lazy bitch."

The whole of Mr. Marmalade, which premiered off Broadway in 2005, relies on a single grotesque technique—to document an abusive courtship and marriage wherein the better half is only 4 years old. Which raises the question: Why would a 4-year-old girl invent such a vile imaginary friend?

Playwright Noah Haidle refuses to answer. Lucy's real world is mildly depressing (absent father, inattentive mother, slutty babysitter), but nothing that explains the depths of her masochistic imagination. Once Haidle has set his grim scene, he's got nowhere to go but down, so he piles shock upon shock, building to an unearned, bloody climax.

Some of Haidle's bits are comical—like Larry, a 5-year-old boy (the little brother of the slutty babysitter's boyfriend), who brags to Lucy about shoplifting and explains the bandages on his wrists: "That's the other reason I have to repeat preschool. I tried to commit suicide." And shoving adult dysfunctions through a 4-year-old brain lets Haidle make some cutting observations—like how playing doctor is more fun than playing house. But those insights are scarce, leaving Mr. Marmalade an insignificant showcase of gallows humor.

The actors playing the imaginary characters are more successful than the actors playing the real-world ones. Michael Place, as Mr. Marmalade, rightfully inspires homicidal urges; Marc Kenison, as Marmalade's sycophantic personal assistant, inspires pity. But Marya Sea Kaminski gives a muddy performance as Lucy. It's a tough role—sometimes the script needs her to be a kid, sometimes the script needs her to be a grown-up, and sometimes it needs her to be a kid pretending to be a grown-up. Kaminski drifts somewhere between 4 and 40 and, like Lucy herself, we never know quite where or why. BRENDAN KILEY

Tosca

Seattle Opera

Through March 9.

Puccini's Tosca is old news in the opera world, and a glance at the program is all you need to see how Seattle Opera feels about having to stage it. Critics may mock the populist opera and musicologists may slag it, general director Speight Jenkins writes in his program notes, "but the public has never cared." In other words: Have your melodrama, you opera-grubbing lowlifes. Eat your heart out.

Which seems disingenuous. Yes, Tosca is a campy opera—in which a wild diva murders a "lecherous satyr"—but camp is everywhere in opera, and to have its purveyors try to pretend they don't care for it, that they're reluctantly giving in to public demand, is just silly.

The first-act set, built by San Francisco Opera, is appropriately dramatic: the interior of a Roman basilica, all gold-accented grisaille marble and dizzying Renaissance perspective. But the B cast I saw Sunday afternoon (with A-level Frank Porretta, for the noticeably cold-stricken Brandon Jovanovich, as Cavaradossi in the second and third acts) didn't quite live up to the grandeur of the surroundings.

It seemed entirely plausible, for example, that the supposedly passionate Tosca (Michele Capalbo, whose clear tones are occasionally overpowered by the orchestra) is only faking jealousy to encourage her lover's compliments. This might have been an interesting choice—Tosca would be more likable if she possessed even a touch of cunning—but Capalbo's performance is more petulant than passionate. Her urge, at the end of the opera, to murder the wicked Baron Scarpia, just bubbles up. Listen, Seattle Opera, if you know I crave camp, then give it here! Let's not be so prissy. ANNIE WAGNER

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball

ArtsWest

Through March 15.

This play, by Rebecca Gilman, is a kind of Holy Grail: It tackles a Big Theme (in this case, the question of whether pain is necessary to create good art, and whether success can ruin an artist) without getting preachy, and it reaches a clear, satisfying resolution without being too vague or too neat. The fact that the actors do a fine job is practically a bonus.

Dana (Heather Hawkins, onstage for the entire show) is a painter whose career has been in decline. After a halfhearted suicide attempt, she comes to in a mental hospital and finds it the perfect environment for an artist: supportive people, lots of food, and unlimited time to be introspective. When her cheap-ass health insurance gives out, Dana pretends to believe she's baseball bad boy Darryl Strawberry to scam some more time in the institution.

Hawkins treads a fine line, playing a stressed but not delusional woman without resorting to whining. Her (thankfully Ebonics-free) "Darryl Strawberry" is less a case of multiple-personality disorder than an extended metaphor for the artists' struggle, and she pulls it off beautifully. The supporting cast, particularly Trick Danneker as a gentle young nerd in rehab, and Gavin Cummins as a charming sociopath, add color and humor, but are brave enough to step aside and let Hawkins take the spotlight. PAUL CONSTANT