Harold Perrineau, Jr. and Glenn Fitzgeraldplay patient and doctor in Blue/Orange
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Harold Perrineau, Jr. and Glenn Fitzgerald
play patient and doctor in Blue/Orange
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Joe Penhall has channeled so much theatrical outrage over British mental healthcare into Blue/Orange that energized audiences may be exiting the Atlantic Theater without noticing that the play they've just witnessed is almost entirely specious. How else to explain Penhall's copping the Olivier, Evening Standard, and Critics' Circle awards after the work's initial presentation at London's Royal National Theatre two years ago?

Another explanation, of course, is that the sharp poke at British national health policy deserves its laurels if only because it offers three actors plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery. Not that there's much to bite off; in his stage directions, Penhall indicates that the only objects in the consultation room where the play is set are a water cooler and a round table on which rests a large glass bowl containing three oranges. For this mounting, which Neil Pepe has directed to within an inch of its life, designer Robert Brill has gone all out by filling the glass bowl with five oranges and also by randomly positioning three lightweight armchairs. (In London, set designer William Dudley splurged: There were four chairs.)

Rising from and settling into these chairs, and occasionally pulling them here or there in the fever of the moment, are Glenn Fitzgerald as a conscientious consulting-psychiatrist candidate, Zeljko Ivanek as his cunning superior, and Harold Perrineau, Jr. as the patient over whose seeming schizophrenic behavior the two professionals radically and heatedly differ. Each of the actors has plainly sussed out the potential for fireworks in their lines and none of them fails to go for broke, whether or not subtler readings might have minimized the play's weaknesses. Neither, evidently, has Pepe suggested that his cast tone things down.

Given this ham-on-wry approach, Perrineau is riveting as an Afro-Caribbean immigrant institutionalized for 28 days because, or so he's been told, he was experiencing paranoid episodes in the White City area of London where he lives but hasn't fit in. Wound tighter than a toy plucked from under a Christmas tree, Perrineau enters as Chris and sits with legs nervously twitching and mouth compulsively going. He bristles, retreats, and flares again as a character trying to find out if he will be released as promised or if he's slated to be a pawn in a game wherein the rules keep changing. The dreadlocked Perrineau, wheel-chair-bound in his continuing Oz role on HBO, here gets to compensate for that immobility; the patently disturbed Chris contends that his father is Idi Amin but may be Muhammad Ali and also maintains that the oranges in the bowl before him are blue, both outside and in.

Perrineau and Zeljko Ivanek
in Blue/Orange(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Perrineau and Zeljko Ivanek
in Blue/Orange
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ivanek, wearing trendy suits, coordinated shirts, and ties supplied by costumer Laura Bauer and intermittently checking a cell phone (supplier uncredited), seems the authoritative professional when he first arrives as Robert Smith. But he elevates emotionally to furious disdain when, perhaps embodying R. D. Laing's notorious belief that patients can often be saner than their caretakers, he begins manipulating Chris and Bruce to his own ambitious ends. He's particularly maniacal during a scene wherein he imputes racist thinking to Bruce so as to prompt Chris into bringing career-threatening charges, which he ultimately does. As the eventually undermined Bruce, Fitzgerald commands his portion of the broad spotlight by at first conveying proper concern but, when betrayed by Robert, shifting to his own slightly unbalanced conduct and, at the last, obsequiousness. More power to all three actors for their efforts.

But Penhall's play! There's no mistaking he's got an axe to grind about health care in his homeland and, by implication, elsewhere. That he thinks it's no good is obvious, but his depiction of its deficiencies is seriously, even dangerously, out of whack. However he assesses the therapy that Bruce and Robert are administering and however insensitive he thinks physicians may be, it's unlikely that anyone with a diploma would behave in the unprofessional manner that Penhall attributes to his warring figures. Surely, doctors disagree about their diagnoses -- but, just as surely, they keep their squabbles behind carefully closed doors and don't repeatedly haggle over them in front of patients, as Robert and Bruce do. Yes, it's true that patients who should be housed safely in well tended hospital wards roam the streets daily -- but none of them do this as a consequence of confrontations like the ones posited by Penhall, whose background in the field is that he once worked briefly alongside a caretaker friend.

Furthermore, the playwright appears to view Chris's problems as not lending themselves to cut-and-dried conclusions. The staunch Bruce is in no doubt that a diagnosis of schizophrenia has to be made from Chris's continually seeing enemies, his insisting that oranges are blue, and his conviction that he's been sired by either Idi Amin or Muhammad Ali -- but Robert holds out the possibility that the blue/orange thing indicates Chris is familiar with Paul Eluard's poem "La terre est bleu comme une orange" and that it's just possible his Zairean mother had contact with Idi Amin. Therefore, Robert surmises that Bruce's medical opinion is blindered, ethnocentric thought. Only the most gullible listener, however, would buy this. (Penhall has said that this work was partly inspired by David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and by Karen, the does-she-know-what-she's-doing-or-not character that Madonna played in it, but the similarity is only superficial: Karen's actions are ambiguous while Penhall's dude is far gone.

And what's Penhall's attitude towards R. D. Laing, who's been more or less discredited since he was forced to resign from the register of the General Medical Council in 1987 and since his death in 1989? Penhall includes an exchange between Bruce and Robert where the former says, "R. D. Laing was a madman -- they don't come any fruitier," and the latter replies, "I think there's something in it." It looks as if Penhall really believes that psychiatrists can be madmen, as Robert is meant to be. But does the dramatist also believe that, in general, medical practitioners are as nutty as their charges -- or nuttier? By the end of Blue/Orange, when Robert lets slip some racist comments of his own and Bruce has been thoroughly trounced, Penhall certainly seems to be handing down a take-no-prisoners indictment of psychiatry.

Fitzgerald, Perrineau, and Ivanek in Blue/Orange
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Fitzgerald, Perrineau, and Ivanek in Blue/Orange
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Or, perhaps, the author may simply intend Blue/Orange as a comment on the power plays between contentious government officials that end with total disregard for the troubled, average Joe. For instance, Robert could be seen as representative of the current Washington, D.C. administration in conflict with the Democrats in the Senate and Congress as represented by Bruce, with Chris standing in for the overlooked American public. This interpretation might work, but only on a metaphorical level -- and plays that resonate as metaphors but fail to connect in other ways aren't worth much as they pass by. This is true of Blue/Orange, despite the slick production that Pepe and his wired actors have given it.