- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What color is an orange? An absurd question, perhaps, unless you’re a surrealist or a psychotic.

In Joe Penhall’s “Blue/Orange,” Christopher (Cedric Mays) — a Londoner of Afro-Caribbean descent — falls into the latter category, and his perceptions and delusions form the battleground of the play’s area premiere, directed by Jeremy Skidmore at Theater Alliance.

The skirmish is waged in a single consultation room between Bruce (Aubrey Deeker), a young and dedicated intern, and his supervisor, Robert (Michael Tolaydo), a bureaucratic kowtower with an agenda all his own. Christopher, a fruit vendor, is arrested after a vague and disturbing public incident (which can only be described in a family newspaper as an “excessive love of citrus”) and has been admitted to a mental health facility for the required 28 days. Beyond his obsession with oranges (which he insists are blue), Christopher also is convinced he is the son of Idi Amin — and also claims parentage to Muhammad Ali.

Bruce believes Christopher is schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital for further observation and treatment. Robert, mindful of the shortage of beds and the high cost of health care, would rather give him the boot and send him out into the community with a prescription and a promise to show up for therapy appointments.

When Bruce challenges Robert’s authority, the older man pulls rank — and also the race card — accusing the younger doctor of operating out of cultural assumptions about black men. Coincidentally, Robert is writing a book on psychiatric prejudices and skin color, a book that will catapult him to Dr. Phil-like stardom.

So, where does that leave the patient? Christopher wobbles in the middle, easily swayed by both doctors and his grip on reality loosening by the second.

With its rapid-fire dialogue and tense atmosphere of heated academic one-upmanship, “Blue/Orange” resembles David Mamet’s “Oleanna” or a Harold Pinter play — only nowhere near as accomplished or disturbing. The discourse into the nature of madness and the idea of a psychiatrist unexpectedly envying all that unchecked passion and abandon also puts you in mind of Peter Schaeffer’s “Equus.”

However, with “Blue/Orange,” it seems more like hot-air psychobabble and a blustering power game than a probing inquiry into labeling the mentally ill. Mr. Deeker is ferocious and uncompromising as the single-minded Bruce, and Mr. Tolaydo is a worthy adversary as the ambitious toady who looks like a harmless administrator — but his rumpled demeanor conceals a ruthless schemer.

Although Mr. Mays has the most trouble with his accent (which travels all the way through the tropics and the British Isles) his portrayal of a young man enslaved by compulsions and feral thoughts evokes empathy and fear.

Acting pyrotechnics, though, can compensate only so much for the play’s one-dimensional characters: Bruce is the Good Doctor, Christopher is the Loony, and Robert represents the Jerk Boss contingent. For all the cutthroat dialogue, nothing surprising is revealed about these types, just generic and stale quasi-revelations about psychotic disorders and how maddening it can be to work in an institution ruled by ego and passive-aggressive behavior.

By the end, “Blue/Orange” has faded permanently into black and white, the characters sapped by the self-important prattle spewed over two long acts. Everyone’s exactly where he or she was at the beginning of the play, with Bruce insisting he’s right and Robert still a twit. Christopher, with the saddest story of all, remains seized by mental illness, a victim of the system and one of society’s castoffs.


WHAT: “Blue/Orange,”by Joe Penhall

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: Running in repertory with “In on It” through June 10; check Web site for exact dates and show times.


PHONE: 866/811-4111

WEB SITE: www.theateralliance.com


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