Is There a Script Doctor in the House?

Warning: Sitting through blue/orange may be hazardous to your mental health

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Who is crazy? Is it the mental patient diagnosed with "borderline personality disorder"? Is it the passionate young doctor who thinks the patient is really an undiagnosed schizophrenic? Is it the jaded older doctor, ready to release the patient because there are no beds available? Or is it the people responsible for blue/orange winning England's Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2000?

Presented by the Rep in a well-acted, vigorously staged production, blue/orange tries to ask important questions about racism in the field of mental health. Getting doctors to recognize their own ethnocentrism is a noble goal. Playwright Joe Penhall should present a paper at a medical convention if that's what he wants to accomplish. He provides lots of textbook information about schizophrenia, but I learned more -- and much more edifyingly -- from the movie A Beautiful Mind. Perhaps it's a cultural thing; maybe the British prefer theater stuffed with information and politically correct topics, a high-fiber artistic experience you can feel good about without actually enjoying.

The play's most interesting character is the patient, Christopher, a young black man who's on the verge of getting out of the hospital. Rashaad Ernesto Green plays him with just enough edge and wild-eyed paranoia to justify Dr. Bruce's concerns and just enough down-to-earth common sense to justify Dr. Robert's decision to release him. We're never sure what he'll say or do next, and that keeps us interested.

Unfortunately, Penhall spends most of his time with the two doctors, each of whom takes a position and spends the rest of the play arguing for it. Played with nefarious nasality by Anderson Matthews, Robert is the Supervisor from Hell, a power-driven practitioner who'd give Donald Trump a run for his money. Bruce, portrayed by fresh-faced Jeremy Webb with youthful vigor and way too much finger-pointing, is his opposite. He's the young upstart challenging his mentor, the one who really cares about the patient, a kind of David to Robert's Goliath. Robert manipulates with ease, while Bruce flounders in sincerity: "It's all semantics," Bruce argues, to which Robert replies: "My semantics are better than yours, so I win." It's a right-versus-might dilemma that's all too familiar.

Still, if the doctors did more than debate, blue/orange might hold our interest. The play veers off course when it becomes discourse instead of drama. Quoting philosophers and poets, Robert spouts a theory about how truth is culturally relative, which makes Christopher's symptoms "normal" for "people like him." Robert's argument may contain some relevant points, but between the literary allusions and the academic jargon, who really cares? "Maybe something interesting will happen in Act Two," I heard a woman say hopefully to her companion during intermission, while a group of fatigued-looking teens chatted about how they liked it "at first" but got lost in all the words.

There is indeed more action in the second half, and the actors play it with honest intensity. As Christopher sits chewing his nails in the corner, the two doctors battle (very unprofessionally!) for control. Robert uses his power to punish Bruce for his insubordination. Cornered and defeated, Bruce turns on Christopher in a chilling moment of desperation that finally captures the hearts of the audience. Why? Because the character discovers something unexpected within himself, and we're there to see it. A play that contained more such moments would yield a more rewarding evening.

Visually, the Rep's production is outstanding. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons provides an instantly recognizable hospital consultation room, right down to the water stains on the ceiling tiles. Mary Jo Dondlinger's lights are glaringly fluorescent, and Marie Anne Chiment's costumes supply precise character detail. Director (and Rep artistic director) Steven Woolf keeps the actors' movements grounded in reality while using the entire space to provide pictures of the characters' shifting relationships. But all this eye candy is just a placebo. It can't cure a mediocre script.

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