Thursday, June 25, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Blue/Orange

I have to admit, I was hoping for more from Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, a diverting but schematic and rather limply "provocative" play that purports to delve into definitional vagaries and social tensions pertinent to mental illness, race, health care, and professional turf-wars. "Schizophrenia" is a much-bandied term as one junior and one senior doctor haggle out the case of Christopher, an Afro-British patient due either to be released from institutional care or ratcheted up to more open-ended confinement and intensive study on the day the play begins. The play's truest claim to schizophrenia, though, derives from its critical reception, which on the one hand was strong enough to elevate Penhall's name significantly in the U.K. and, in rather narrower theater circles, over here in the U.S., earning him the prestigious Evening Standard and Olivier Awards in back-to-back years, but also sufficiently mixed to earn the play an unqualified pan from the Daily Telegraph in 2000 and a tepid notice from the New York Times two years later.

Penhall, who later wrote a wonderful screenplay adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, has certainly hit the target of the kind of "taut" three-character chamber play in which the intense focus on a few characters, the triangulated tensions between each pair of them, and the gradual overlaying of themes, treacheries, and open-ended questions often furnish a kind of potboiler pleasure in and of themselves. The appeal of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which Blue/Orange supplanted from the Duchess Theatre when it made its West End transfer, inheres partly in these same tropes, although (a huge although) Frayn's play radiates a scrupulous knowledge about its facts and contexts that Blue/Orange rarely achieves. One gets the feeling less of Penhall studying and diagnosing what's wrong with the National Health Service, its "ethnocentric" biases, and its cash-strapped prioritizing of clearing beds over curing patients and more of him working himself into an aloof, targeted, opportunistic lather about these notions by reading lots of inflamed Op/Eds in the city paper. There's a Paul Haggis-ness to the way in which key characters unleash the slimiest epithets in particularly maladroit moments, as a way of achieving dramatic climaxes that the intricacy of characterization and the attempts at articulating personal, professional, and social stakes within the play don't seem able to incite on their own merits.

In truth, a closer structural and intellectual paratext for Blue/Orange is probably John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which also sparks a clash of local titans around an aggrieved character all but defined by his dark skin and by the play's oblique but insistent construction of him as a figure of epistemological enigma. Shanley, a less trenchant writer than Frayn, at least has the smarts to admit his lack of interior or genuinely empathetic access to Donald Miller, his posing of him as a riddle and a timely phenomenon more than as a character; that's why, in the play unlike the movie, he doesn't appear in the piece. Penhall, however, builds the unstable, surprising, unknowable Christopher right into the play's delimited contest of wills. He thus makes himself responsible to show more of the character, to push past the tortured rhetorics he elicits from others and the racist cultural dysmorphia he both exposes and emblematizes. A strong actor might connect deeply enough with Christopher to make use of the strongest stuff in Penhall's dialogue, including his built-in silences, and thereby make the character dramatically viable: he can hardly have asked for better original-production ambassadors than then-unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor in the U.K. and Harold Perrineau, Jr. of Smoke and Lost in the U.S. Still, the script is finally more interested in blaring contradictions and muddying waters in relation to Christopher than in resolving him, even as a man in crisis. Idi Amin! Patois! Drugs! Righteous anger! Aggression! Suicidal tendencies! Muhammad Ali! Distorted perceptions! Public housing! This erratic chain of signifiers goes way above and beyond the call for "discontinuous"; again, it's the play as much as the character who invites a diagnosis of borderline personality. A smart production would have to underscore the nasty paternalism with which the two white doctors keep asking Christopher to leave the room so they can talk about him and decide his fate. Even here, though, Blue/Orange feels like a "problem play" less because it's articulate and inventive in its evocation of social stalemates than because the script is a promising but jerry-rigged and immaturely conceived series of problems to be worked out in the staging. A successful production would involve saving the script from its own most slickster tendencies and stalled metaphors (including the eponymous one), but the attainments of the piece don't seem worth the labors of working around its deficits.

P.S. Say this for Penhall: he may be onto something with those Crashisms. The raves in both the Sunday Times ("I came out of Joe Penhall's new play in a state of hot, black excitement!") and the Independent ("Provocative, blackly funny!") adopted the most dubious possible language in expressing their enthusiasm, and then Methuen made the obnoxious choice of selecting these blurbs for the jacket-copy on the paperback. Sometimes all you can say is, "...Really?"

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1 Comments:

At June 25, 2009 at 9:29 AM , Blogger tim r said...

Interesting. I did like the London production, and do think Chewy burned his way through some of those problems, but you've reminded me of a bit of a rod the play makes for its own back, for sure. Nighy was superb.

My hunch remains that Dumb Show is the better piece, particularly with a spectacular Douglas Hodge on hand to bring it off, and both are better (in almost any production) than Penhall's Landscape with Weapon at the National -- all similarly issue-y bits of social drama, but pulled off with varying degrees of writerly force.

 

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