Theater » Theater Feature

The Heat-Oppressed Brain

Playhouse on the Square stages Blue/Orange; cooks the audience.


When the theater doors reopened at intermission, the drowsy, slow-moving audience was encouraged to visit the lobby. "It's much cooler in here," someone shouted over the sweaty crowd's collective grumble. And it was cooler - much.

I really hate to begin a review in such a parochial fashion, veering so far a field from the subject at hand, but Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange is a densely written play with limited visual appeal and more words than actions, and rather than hanging on every line, I spent the better part of the first act fending off sleep. Not to disparage the work of three fine actors and a script that is interesting, if unexciting, but if the sweat beads dripping from the tip of my nose hadn't been so annoying, I might have lost the battle.

With Blue/Orange, Penhall rips a page from the David Mamet stylebook by presenting us with characters who play out their parts like poker hands. At any given time it's difficult to tell who is bluffing and who is holding the good cards. The action unfolds in a British mental hospital where Christopher (Keith Patrick McCoy), an Afro-Caribbean patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder - on the border between neurotic and psychotic - is about to complete a month-long visit. Christopher is upbeat as he begins his final interview with Bruce, a doctor who is concerned that his patient might not be ready for release. Bruce is strict and holistic in his approach, discouraging Christopher from drinking coffee, Coke, or other caffeinated beverages. He also begs Christopher not to drink alcohol and to only take the drugs he's prescribed. Though it's clear that he has Christopher's best interests in mind, Bruce - played in a somewhat downtrodden manner by Jeff Godsey - comes off as a reluctant but inflexible fuddy-duddy and the perfect foil for his seemingly free-spirited superior, Dr. Robert Smith, played by Bill Baker.

Smith, easily the play's most interesting and fully drawn character, at first comes off like a buffoonish administrator, more concerned with the number of available hospital beds than with the health of his patients. But the more he talks the more sense he makes. Smith thinks that many of Christopher's problems stem not from illness but from inherent cultural biases built into the system of evaluation. Smith's view might be summed up "he's not crazy, he's just black" and by blaming the system, rather than the patient, he's initially successful in tarring his young colleague as a racist and as someone who wants to imprison his patients.

Baker, an actor of extraordinary capacity who, as the artistic director for Our Own Voice Theatre Company, has spent over a decade staging plays that deal with mental-healthcare issues and challenging notions of what it means to be normal, should feel right at home in the role of Dr. Smith, but something isn't quite right. While his fellow actors settle into natural, organic rhythms, Baker jumps about the stage gesticulating like the administrative clowns that often appear in his own plays. It's not that what he's doing is incorrect; it just doesn't seem to fit. On the other hand Baker might have sensed that the heat was competing for attention and decided to ratchet things up a notch. Either way, the disparity of performance styles was thoroughly disconcerting.

As the play wears on it becomes increasingly clear to the audience that Christopher is deeply disturbed and in need of care. But the play isn't about Christopher, and it never was. He's merely a pawn to be moved about the table by two imperfect doctors with opposing ideologies, agendas, and God complexes. It also becomes increasingly clear that the playwright is playing an academic game by turning his characters into Freud's divisions of consciousness. Christopher, who is easily influenced by his surroundings, becomes the ego (the part of consciousness most in touch with external realities), the Machiavellian Smith becomes the Id (the primitive subconscious appetite), and Bruce morphs into the Superego (the subconscious moral code that keeps the ego in check). It's a harmless conceit that does nothing to add to the suspense and very little to detract from the action at hand.

As Christopher, Playhouse newcomer McCoy finds every nuance. One moment he's beaming, the next he's irrationally fearful, simply confused, or stalking about the stage like a wounded tiger. As the lights fade, we care about him and only him. n

Through July 31st

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