Regional Reviews: St. Louis
This past summer I was on an "L" train in Chicago, rattling along in a car with about ten other people on a bright sunny day. And one of my fellow riders was a pleasantly manic homeless man. He was very friendly and very talkative to the other passengers, who graciously indulged his runaway chatter as the Brown Line train moved above city streets in a long stretch where you're all trapped together, usually in silence. And I am embarrassed to say I felt like my anxious grandmother who would have been filled with a primitive loathing: as if this man's own version of mental illness might, on some level, be contagious to me. In Joe Penhall's play from 2000, Blue/Orange, it is. Mental illness fills the air, on comic and anguished levels at the Stray Dog Theatre. It's just hard to tell who's spreading it.
Three intensely clever actors make up the cast, and madness passes between and among them like flakes of glitter at a crafting party. William Humphrey is Christopher, a young Black man who worked in a grocery stall until he was placed in psychiatric observation for four long weeks in a British hospital. Jason Meyers plays his earnest, apprentice psychiatrist, and Ben Ritchie is the ambitious supervisor for this branch of the UK's sprawling National Health Service. The play is staged with a 20-minute intermission but without British accents, under the guidance of the always excellent Stray Dog Associate Artistic Director Justin Been. He creates a sense of a living world behind the closed doors of a mental hospital.
Superficially, it would be a race-themed play, even if there were no dialog spoken at all: a Black man tries to get out of this asylum, while two white doctors argue about what's ailing him, or the world, in the first place. But playwright Penhall suffuses his tense modern comedy with seemingly innocent moments that later turn toxic, like a murder mystery that runs backwards, or a drama by David Mamet or Lucas Hnath that doesn't make us feel filthy and complicit afterward. Mr. Penhall was born in London but raised in Australia and has since found broader success as the creator of the TV series "Mindhunter."
But in the theater, and in the world, words are sticky things. And, too often, whoever makes the sharpest, most audacious description of the self or the world can define the sanity of a patient, or even a troublesome younger doctor. In Blue/Orange, one brash characterization of Christopher follows another, for the purpose of keeping him committed or letting him go, as his fate twists in the breeze like a weathervane. And many of these diagnoses blossom into damning little concepts about colonialism and the "antecedents" of today's Britons, indigenous or immigrant, flowing back from the former colonies, that either make Christopher seem victimized or incurable. Or that may read like an ironic justification of the white privilege enjoyed by Dr. Smith, the supervisor.
Mr. Humphrey, as the patient, lets his soul plummet into the abyss again and again, as the other two argue his fate with ulterior motives and gamesmanship that carpet-bombs the road to healing. Messrs. Meyers and Ritchie move normalcy to absurd heights and depths, till identity and sanity become indefinable in their war of vastly different interpretations. Meantime, the laughs come in unexpected places and for the unlikeliest of reasons.
It is the best work I've ever seen from Mr. Ritchie, who is stuffy and obtuse for the first three scenes, but then sluices through three wildly different personality paradigms in the final 15 minutes. Mr. Humphrey strikes an entirely new tone in tragedy, as the patient who cannot be helped. And Mr. Meyers, always a delight, is slowly ground up like a comical sausage, to prepare him for the welcoming arms of the British healthcare bureaucracy.
Blue/Orange runs through October 23, 2021, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.