Are the people we call crazy really insane, or are they having a logical response to a world gone mad? That's the question rebellious Scottish psychotherapist R.D. Laing posed in the 1960s. Expanding on Harry Stack Sullivan's work in interpersonal psychology, Laing posited that psychotic episodes could provide the patient with the opportunity to undertake an internal voyage towards reintegration with the world and themselves. He resisted the Freudian characterization of schizophrenia as a disease and the stigmatization of its sufferers.
In Blue/Orange, British playwright Joe Penhall takes Laing's questions up a level by pitting two British doctors against each other, the prize being a young Jamaican man named Christopher. Their patient is scheduled to leave a state-run hospital after a twenty-eight day "Section 2" stay, but cleverly Penhall never gives away exactly what got Christopher "sectioned," choosing instead to focus on how he becomes the wishbone -- a smart, charismatic, and potentially dangerous wishbone -- upon which the two other men tug.
A three-man play about race, mental illness, and office politics gone wrong may not sound like a good time, but Blue/Orange is both Mametian and funny; Penhall's got it in for linguistic political correctness, which gets battered, dredged, and deep-fried here. From the delicate sensibilities of the younger doctor Bruce ("We don't actually use the word 'crazy,'" he says carefully. "It's unhelpful") to the ribald bonhomie of his mentor Robert (speaking of Bruce's wife he says, "tie that woman to the nearest bed and inseminate her as soon as possible"), Penhall shows a glee for language that makes difficult subject matter engaging. He also makes it quite clear what the stakes are for everyone involved -- both in the writing and the acting, there's an elaborate three-way tug-of-war that gets more extreme with every act until it's hard to see how any of the characters can possibly win.
Aurora's staging of Blue/Orange is excellent. Tom Ross hits his directorial marks here, infusing the work with more juice than usual. Other than a little second-act sludginess, the pacing of the play works, from the disco-reminiscent opening with its flashing polka-dot lights and high-energy music, to a series of lively blocking choices. Often the actors physically mirror each other, such as a moment where Bruce and Christopher strike the same poses and face past each other, forming a sort of yin-yang pattern around the table. The disquieting larger effect is to question which of the three are really unstable.
Which is an effect Penhall pushes as the play progresses and the battle between Bruce and Robert heats up. Bruce wants to keep Christopher for more observation, but Robert's against it. The question Robert poses -- and it's a good one -- is whether institutionalizing Christopher any longer will actually help the man, or just make things worse. But the other issue is one of beds, and the brutal logic of money. It also turns out that Robert has another, more selfish agenda involving some research and his own advancement. As the two struggle, with Christopher coming in and out to inflame them, the story gets progressively stranger.
In fact, much of it seems exaggerated -- would two psychiatrists really duke it out this way in front of a patient? -- but one possible reading is that having Robert be so extreme creates more of a surreal atmosphere. The audience is made to feel as though they are themselves going insane. It might also provoke rueful groans of recognition from anyone who's ever had a boss they felt went too far. We identify with Bruce, who watches in disbelief as his mentor casually twists, folds, spindles, and mutilates the truth to his own ends.
Paul Whitworth grabs the role of the Laingian Robert with both hands and squeezes hard. Big, swaggering, self-aggrandizing, and pretentious, Robert is very clear on where he stands in the hospital hierachy. When Bruce starts acting insubordinate, Robert reminds the younger man that if other young doctors had "a shot at being consultants -- they'd lick my anus! But that's beside the point. It's not my job to listen to you, it's your job to listen to me." He also does a nice job on a monologue where he notes that "organized crime gets better press" than schizophrenia. The subtlety in the role lies in the fact that while Robert is certainly power-hungry, he does appear to care about his patients, as evidenced by his concern that keeping Christopher in the hospital will worsen the man's condition.
Whether he cares about his young mentee Bruce is another issue altogether, one that plagues T. Edward Webster, who melts into the role of idealistic Bruce. Cautious and formal at the beginning, Bruce gets pushed to the edge by the second act. Webster makes especially nice use of pauses, and his eventual breakdown -- centered on a game he attended with Robert ("I don't even like rugby! A bunch of hairy twats runnning around biting each other's ears off!") -- is very strong. Loose-limbed and bouncy, Paul Oliver's Christopher is menacing and charming by turns. He's also quite natural in the role, whether he's raising the very real question of whether the police are hassling him because he's black or the very unreal possibility that pale white "baldy-head" zombies are looking through his windows. At one point he comes sluggish and dragging into the IKEA-standard consultation room where the whole play takes place, and we start to wonder about the efficacy of Haldol and the like as treatment if it means that the patient is so flattened. Oliver has (as do the other two) wonderful vocal variety, from his chipper "who are you, Professor Groovy?" to the low growl that makes further institutionalization seem like not such a bad idea.
Penhall notes that Blue/Orange, which he wrote in three weeks and never expected to see staged, is not about mental illness, but the politics of mental illness. It's also about ambition, control, and racism. The piece about racism -- and how contemporary society tries to deal with and redress it -- is both mordantly funny and painfully truthful. Christopher may be playing the race card when he accuses Bruce or the police of treating him a certain way because he's black, or he may in fact be paranoid and delusional; both possibilities are here equally true. As R.D. Laing might have agreed, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
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