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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Joe Penhall's Blue-Orange, which garnered a raft of awards in London, has arrived the Atlantic Theater. It's a psychological boxing match in which the patient whose treatment triggers a professional disagreement between two psychiatrists becomes their punching bag. Since the plot remains as summed up Lizzie Loveridge's review of the West End production is unchanged and I refer you to the link at the end of this review instead of repeating its details here. Unfortunately, the play has not crossed the Atlantic with quite the electricity it generated in England.
For starters, the Atlantic is not set up to enable director Neil Pepe to stage the play in the round with some seats right on the stage, which was the case when it ran at the National Theatre and during its transfer to the West End. Designer Robert Brill has recreated the minimalism of the original set most effectively -- a raised platform furnished only with a water cooler, three chairs, and a table to hold the bowl filled with the oranges that give the play its title is encircled in gunmetal gray without a single decorative touch. The escalating tension builds on the sense of that raised platform as a boxing ring but it's easy to imagine how sitting all around the actors, your eyes following them following each other around, would make for a more dynamic connection.
If the play were as compelling as its critical and box office success led us to expect, it would not to be reliant on a specific type of staging and the above would be a minor quibble. However, despite the young playwright's often razor-sharp dialogue, Blue-Orange's only real link to Copenhagen (review) to which it's frequently been compared, is that it features three actors arguing incessantly -- in this case about mental health care, professional ethics, careerism and racial prejudice.
There's also the matter of this cast's fully realizing ambiguities of their characters. The most successful and fully sympathetic of the trio is Harold Perrineau, Jr. as Christopher, the punching-ball patient who often sounds less -- or at least, no less -- in need of psychiatric help than the doctors. From his first appearance on stage, it's obvious that Chris is more than just a hyper nervous slum kid. Even as his mood swings show that there are grounds for young Doctor Bruce's concerns about his delusions (the oranges he sees as blue, the claimed kinship to erstwhile African dictator Idi Amin), it also becomes clear that maybe Bruce's eagerness to prove himself as an astute and caring doctor worthy of an appointment as a permanent consultant may be exacerbating rather than alleviating the hapless patient's problems. Perrineau captures all the nuances of a paranoid volatility, alienated child of two cultures, and bewildered hostage in a fight that has nothing to do with helping him.
Zeliko Ivanek is quite good in portraying Robert as the manipulative, ambitious bureaucrat. He is less convincing as the more likeable intellectual who quotes poetry and R. D. Laing and still hopes to do something important -- but within the constraints of the system in which he aims to climb a few more rungs of the career ladder. The younger doctor also needs to be both sympathetic and unsympathetic. Glenn Fitzgerald, whose work I greatly admired in Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero ( Review) is properly earnest and full of outrage but, as Robert is better at being appalling than appealing, Fitzgerald fails to register strongly in the reverse direction.
The play's problems pertaining to the national health system are not all that irrelevant to Americans who grapple with ever more costly and ineffective health coverage and who have seen the closing of mental institutions send thousands of incompetent to cope people into the streets. The English system is obviously as full of flaws as ours -- as Penhall's lavishly lauded play, is as flawed as many of this season's homegrown dramas.
Blue-Orange in London
Review of another Penhall play, Some Voices
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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