Stage review: Moral issues roil funny 'Blue/Orange'

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When is an orange blue? Or an old theater new?

And when is a new theater old, you might also ask. Easy: When it's the Phoenix Theatre, born from the parentage of two theater veterans, Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers, director/producers with long histories in Pittsburgh but united now in giving (re)birth to a new theater with a new mission.

More about them and their theater later, but first, the play's the thing, their debut with "Blue/Orange" by British playwright Joe Penhall, perhaps best known here as screenwriter of "The Road," filmed in Pittsburgh.

Where: Phoenix Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown, across from August Wilson Center.

When: Through Nov. 23; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and Nov. 18; 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $15-$38; or 1-888-718-4253; more at 

"Blue/Orange" won the 2001 Olivier Award (London's Tony) for best play, and you can see why: It's a funny but ominous three-hander about race/ethnicity, neocolonialism, mental illness, power and even class, that peculiarly British subject that Americans hardly admit exists. As you'd also expect of a play in which two white experts have power over an unruly black man, it's serious and it erupts onto the stage with frenetic energy, but the audience spends an awful lot of time laughing.

Perhaps the title is misleading, sounding like an orange designed by Ralph Lauren. But misdirection is appropriate, because as "Blue/Orange" doubles back on itself, you have to remember there are serious issues at stake. What's most interesting is character, unfolding gradually as you try to tune your moral compass by siding with one combatant or another.

One of the chief attractions of this new company is its old/new cast, "old" in the sense of skilled and familiar. It features Pittsburgh's current favorite leading man, David Whalen (Bruce), and another stalwart, Sam Tsoutsouvas (Robert), whose Broadway, off-Broadway and national credits include a dozen leads in Pittsburgh.

New to most people is Rico Parker (Christopher), who has previously been here only at Pittsburgh Playwrights. He plays the black man in the triangle, an Afro-Caribbean-Anglo-whatever (we have to get used to peculiarly British locutions) who has been "sectioned" (i.e. committed) to a hospital for the mentally ill. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the borderline being between neurotic (where many of us live) and psychotic (where we don't want to go), Christopher just may also get labeled schizophrenic.

The other two will do the labeling. Mr. Whalen's Bruce is the younger, gung-ho doctor in charge of Christopher's case, while Mr. Tsoutsouvas' Robert is his patronizing superior, also representing the vague and Orwellian "authority," who has been called in to consult. There's a hall of mirrors effect; Kafka comes to mind. And yet it also verges on farce.

Key to the play's effect is Mr. Southers' set, fully in the round, bringing the audience of 125 into satisfying proximity to the battle. Kudos to the lighting by Jim French, now warm, now clinical.

Director Paul puts the pedal to the metal right off as Christopher erupts on stage. But soon enough the main struggle turns out to be between the two doctors, as Christopher is batted back and forth, sometimes allying himself with this one or that one as they debate, squabble and eventually brawl.

The chief fault is the play's length. It's 2½ hours, including intermission, but there are a couple or three more turns of the corkscrew than are needed to get us to the exciting and somewhat enigmatic conclusion.

No one plays insufferable condescension better than Mr. Tsoutsouvas or bewildered idealism better than Mr. Whalen. In such skilled company, Mr. Parker more than holds his own. Meanwhile, the audience's sympathies bounce around like a jazzed up ping-pong ball, while the one who is marginally insane (to use a layman's term) seems saner and saner in contrast.

As to the new company's name, it obviously alludes to Mr. Paul's and Mr. Southers' sudden departures from, respectively, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre (which Mr. Paul founded) and the August Wilson Center.

But the phoenix of myth is a bird with powers of resurrection. In creating a theater that will feature racial, ethnic and gender inclusion, Messers Paul and Southers have found a new niche in Pittsburgh's stimulating professional theater scene. "Blue/Orange" gives their company an admirable launch. Let's hope the theater-going audience hops on board.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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