Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Blue/Orange"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Joe Penhall
directed and designed by David J. Miller

Christopher … Dorian Christian Baucum
Dr. Bruce Flaherty … Eric Hamel
Dr. Robert Smith … Steven Barkhimer

Even since Cain slew Abel and then went philosophical with the Lord, Black Humor has always kept company with Man. Once held in check by decorum and taboo, Black Humor has flourished like weeds in a garden and there are more and more funny-sad or funny-awful entertainments nowadays, blurring the once-distinct boundaries between Comedy and Tragedy. Whether Man has become more winking towards Life or has simply chosen to laugh rather than go mad over the state of his world is a person-by-person guess (I’ve come to believe that Man is closer to the Ape than to the Angel but that shouldn’t keep him from looking up at the heavens, now and then). That blurred line makes it difficult to determine the true genre and whether or not the comic part is actually funny (after all, you are what you laugh at); if you look back at Boston-area theatre in 2004, how would you classify such dark evenings as THE DAZZLE, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, OUR LADY OF 121st STREET, POPCORN, BAD SEED, THE WELL OF THE SAINTS and MATERS FAMILIAS? All of them have laugh-provoking situations --- are they Comedies? All of them deal with serious topics --- are they Tragedies? Jean de La Bruyere’s saying, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think,” helps to draw a line, somewhat. Take BAD SEED, for example: a devoted mother is devastated upon learning her little girl is a cold-blooded murderess; she agonizes, gives her daughter an overdose of sleeping pills and shoots herself --- BAD SEED could be an Ibsen-esque tragedy. Yet the Camp followers have long viewed BAD SEED as a comedy: Little Rhoda calmly goes about her business while masquerading as an angelic-looking child; she gets a good night’s rest from her overdose and lives on to kill again (and Mother is such a melodramatic pill). I side with the mother, however, and consider BAD SEED a tragedy. Now, take POPCORN: two psychotic killers on the run crash a film director’s Hollywood home and hold everyone inside as hostages, nonchalantly shooting a few of them and blaming the director’s violent films for their antisocial behavior. If you side with the hostages, POPCORN is a horrifying indictment on America’s love affair with violence; if you side with the killers, POPCORN is a horrifying comedy; like Rhoda, they are quite down-to-earth folks and, being the ones with the guns, can afford to crack wise at the others’ expense. I say that POPCORN is a comedy.

Joe Penhall’s BLUE/ORANGE in a dazzling little Zeitgeist Stage production has been called a Comedy and I agree: the scene is a consulting office in a London psychiatric hospital. Dr. Bruce Flaherty, an up-and-comer, clashes with his superior, Dr. Robert Smith, over the fate of Christopher, his young black patient who is to be discharged within twenty-four hours. Dr. Flaherty claims that Christopher is far from ready to be released into the world --- his patient, for starters, claims that oranges are blue in color and that he is really the son of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin --- while Dr. Smith counters that Christopher is merely suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder and therefore safe enough to be let go; besides, the hospital needs his bed. While the doctors escalate in their cerebral battle, Christopher begins to have doubts about his sanity; in a light-night consultation with Dr. Smith, Christopher is provoked into pulling the Race Card against Dr. Flaherty, suddenly convinced that Flaherty’s concern stems from a white man’s feeling of superiority towards his race. Dr. Smith, sensing an advantage, encourages Christopher to file a complaint against his colleague and if the rest of BLUE/ORANGE becomes predictable the evening never loses its fascination. Christopher’s pulling the Race Card gives Act Two a distinct plotline yet Act One is the superior achievement with Drs. Flaherty and Smith building thought-castles of ice and crystal while the earth-bound Christopher is fraying at ground level, a pawn who gets his own back by turning the tables on the Eggheads --- ironic comedy, from all sides. Perhaps the Race Card had to be drawn to bring all that stratospheric ranting back down to earth but Mr. Penhall, bless him, never sweetens or melts an inch, unlike many an American satirist, and his dialogue is a treat for wide-awake ears.

David J. Miller has designed a sleek, abstract office-in-the-round at the BCA’s Black Box Theatre which allows his actors to wander, circle and stalk while sculpting the air with their voices and bodies. Mr. Miller tends to keep his distance towards actors and characters --- is that what “cutting-edge” is all about? --- and is thus dependent upon good actors to fill in the human interest side of his productions. Fortunately he has three of them for BLUE/ORANGE: just as Cheryl McMahon gave a memorable performance in SpeakEasy’s THE MOONLIGHT ROOM without changing her busybody persona, Dorian Christian Baucum’s hardness, upon which I am always harping, has been put to use for the restless, volatile Christopher --- your instincts tell you to never turn your back on this young man even during his playful moments. Eric Hamel’s cut-and-dried Dr. Flaherty may be the straight man to Mr. Baucum’s clown but Mr. Hamel subtly holds his own with a deceptive ordinariness that makes his eleventh hour outbursts all the more powerful. Whenever I see Steven Barkhimer’s name listed in a program I settle in for character acting at its growing best and am never disappointed; Mr. Barkhimer is clearly having a ball as a Dr. Smith equally urbane and heartless. I couldn’t help noticing how Mr. Barkhimer rarely gestures, here, and is content to let his arms hang at his side as he leans forward ever so slightly to turn yet another thumbscrew; rather than making Dr. Smith look silly or ineffective, Mr. Barkhimer’s dangling limbs suggest a man in such control he needn’t bother to gesture at all. (Notice how he also bares his upper teeth in British fashion.)

I would be curious to know the Messrs. Baucum, Hamel and Barkhimer’s opinions on whether or not BLUE/ORANGE is a comedy as each is playing by his own rules. Mr. Baucum is doing his strutting thing, Mr. Hamel is all Masterpiece Theatre and Mr. Barkhimer has wandered in from an Orton play. I could take Mr. Miller to task for not orchestrating them better but their resulting frisson keeps things good and jagged between them, comedy or no comedy, so I cannot complain too, too much.

"Blue/Orange" (11 February - 5 March)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1(617)426-ARTS, 1 (617) 933-8600

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