Mind Games

Blue/Orange probes mental illness but lacks clarity.

In Blue/Orange, Christopher (Keith L. Hatten), a young black man, is awaiting his release from a London psychiatric hospital, where he's been held for 28 days of observation. However, his psychiatrist, Bruce (Steven Cole Hughes), isn't sure he's ready to be discharged. He fears that Christopher is displaying all the symptoms of schizophrenia and may be suicidal. Enter Robert (John Hutton), a senior psychiatrist Bruce has called in for a consultation. Robert thinks Christopher is just fine and should be discharged immediately. When Bruce protests, Robert comes up with a theory about black psychosis being caused by white racism. Pretty soon he's tossing off buzzwords and catchphrases like "ethnocentricity," "cultural oppression" and "colonial antecedents." Both men have valid concerns: Bruce fears for the delusional Chris's safety; Robert points out that being labeled schizophrenic would wreck the young man's life, and that if he's kept in the hospital too long, he'll become institutionalized and unable to function in the world.

But Bruce and Robert also have ulterior motives. Like most HMO managers in the United States, Robert is far more concerned with cutting costs than with his patient's welfare. He's also longing to leave the hospital for an academic career -- and heaven knows, academia loves theories about post-colonialism and cultural oppression. Bruce seems the more idealistic of the two doctors, but we do have to wonder if his relentless labeling hasn't in fact caused Chris to take on or exaggerate some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Chris himself remains oddly passive through most of the first act while the two white male authority figures circle him, attempt to define his state of mind and argue about his future. He jitters; he jokes a bit; he asks for coffee; he maintains steadfastly that he wants to go home. But prompted by Bruce, he also reveals some aspects of his psychosis. He describes the oranges on the table as blue. He displays impressive levels of paranoia. He says that his father was Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

John Hutton and Keith L. Hatten in 
Blue/Orange.
John Hutton and Keith L. Hatten in Blue/Orange.

Details

Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company
Through November 15
303-893-4100, denvercenter.org
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets

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This first third of the play is absolutely riveting. It raises questions about how we label ourselves and others, how fluid our self-definition can be. It hints at the uneasy relationship between the races. It's grim and mocking, and the dialogue is brilliant. The two psychiatrists manipulate Chris and jostle with each other for power. By the play's end, when Robert seems to have destroyed Bruce's career and Bruce explodes in rage, Chris seems to be thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. It's also clear that he isn't too mad to indulge in a little manipulation himself.

There's stimulation and much food for thought here, but ultimately, Blue/Orange adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The plot doesn't stand up to a minute's scrutiny, and although the characters are interesting, each seems more like a compendium of ideas, tics and impulses than a real person. You simply can't fathom anyone's motivation. Surely Robert's entire theoretical edifice doesn't rest on the way in which he labels and treats this one black patient. And why, other than injured ego, is he so determined to destroy Bruce? Wouldn't Bruce know that his job is in jeopardy once he's thoroughly insulted his superior? As for Chris, he's "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," as Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union. Writing can gain depth and resonance from a certain amount of ambiguity, but finally I began to wonder if playwright Joe Penhall himself actually knew who these people were. I left the theater feeling as though I'd just engaged in a highly stimulating debate, but I couldn't quite remember what it was all about.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production is clean and intelligent. The set is spare: three chairs, a round table, a water cooler, a bowl of oranges. All three of the actors are talented. Much of the power of Keith L. Hatten's portrayal of Chris lies in his silences. It's worth attending Blue/Orange just to watch the expressions playing over his face as he observes the two doctors. Rage, befuddlement, mockery, fear, amusement -- it's all there. Like Claudius in Hamlet(a role John Hutton has also played), Robert proves that "a man can smile and smile and be a villain." Hutton creates a brilliantly malevolent character, someone who seems at first like a kindly authoritarian figure, but who morphs into a raging monster when opposed. I found Robert less compelling in the second act than in the first, but the fault may lie in the writing. Steven Cole Hughes is a tightly wound and interestingly eccentric Bruce.

I must admit I always have a little difficulty watching American actors pretend to be English. No matter how well they've mastered the accents, the cadences always seem off and the physical mannerisms too loose. Blue/Orange was rapturously received in London, where it won the Olivier award for best new play, but the response in the United States has been more muted. Something may have gotten lost in translation. Watching Blue/ Orange at the Denver Center, I had a sense that I was missing something dizzying and exhilarating in the play's patterns and rhythms -- as if I were viewing a brightly etched scene through smudged glass.

 
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