AISLE SAY Twin Cities


Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by Casey Stangl
Staring Peter Macon, Lee Mark Nelson, and Stephen Yoakam
Guthrie Lab
700 N. 1st Street, Minneapolis
June 9-June 27, 2004

Reviewed by Ellen Dworsky and Roxanne Sadovsky

Typically I need at least 24 hours for plays to simmer in my brain before I can honestly conclude whether to turn the heat up or down. In the case of London's "best new play in 2000," according to the London Guardian, I pretty much knew right away that I wasn't going to be a happy camper. Of course there is no need for me to launch into my extensive psych background, my impatience with the way mental illness is depicted in this society, or the hours upon hours I have bantered the very topic that takes center stage in Joe Penhall's popular and "important" new play. Still, while I can edit, yelp, cringe, and sulk every time the topic of mental health is addressed, particularly the debate regarding the differences between one diagnosis and the next, I realize I am adamant in my beliefs and will try not to let them influence my review too much. Still, I would find it hard to believe that even someone with zero sense of the mental health system wouldn't question some of the scenes that occur in this three-act, three-man drama, set in a London psychiatric ward. In other words, any therapist in his right mind likely turned to his theatre-going neighbor in the first ten minutes of the play to ask "Why in the world would two very learned professionals be arguing the diagnosis so late in the game? Shouldn't they know this stuff by now? Any idiot shrink knows the difference between BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and psychotic disorders well before doing internship!"

Still, even though "Blue/Orange" is a target of attack for those of us stepping years and degrees deep in psychology, subject aside, it is really fun to watch. In fact, the three characters could have been talking about football and I still would have enjoyed the play--

Elle: This might be the right time to interrupt you to give a brief plot summary.

Rox: Oh, that pesky thing? Go ahead, Elle.

Elle: Ok. So first there's the psychiatrist, Bruce, (Lee Mark Nelson) who is in his first year of training in a London loony bin--

Rox: Loony bin?

Elle: Ok, ok. Psychiatric hospital. He's got this patient: Christopher, Peter Macon, a youngish Black guy, at the end of his 28-day stay. Christopher has been diagnosed with BPD. Hey, Rox, do you want to define that?

Rox: The young doc describes it as a personality disorder-verses other disorders which are not necessarily chronic-where the patient can either be psychotic or neurotic-hence they are on the borderline. To my knowledge, that doesn't give you a whole lot to work with, considering how many people in the world fit that definition. Borderline Personality Disorder has always resembled a troubled adolescent in my opinion--that is, someone who has no boundaries, can be self harming, and whose entire sense of self is based on what happens "out there." They are technically described as black and white, friend then enemy, vice versa, and deeply sensitive. Still, there wasn't enough of the play to really know what the dude had, but it didn't resemble BPD or schizophreeeeenia (don't you love how they pronounce it in their British accents) to me, another issue I take with the production, but don't mind me.

Elle: Thanks. So. Bruce starts to suspect Christopher has schizophrenia. By the way, did you notice Christopher had his hair shaved so that it looked like he was wearing a yarmulke?

Rox: There aren't any Black Jews, Elle.

Elle: Sure there are. What about Sammy Davis, Junior? Or the Ethiopian Jews? Anyway, Bruce calls in his mentor/supervisor, Robert (Stephen Yoakam)--

Rox: Omigod! Didn't he totally steal the show? He was so good at playing the archetypal white-bearded, heel-popping power guy! While portrayals of the snooty old white guy are a dime a dozen, guys like Yoakam convince me that life imitates art, not the other way around. Even though he plays a total shit, one can't help be seduced by the authority he carries with such charming confidence. How nice it would be to even for one day tout my character flaws with such commitment and pride! Anyhow...

Elle: Anyhow, he calls in Robert for a second opinion, but Robert insists Christopher is not schizophrenic. You know, I really enjoyed the play but I couldn't decide if it was a comedy, a drama, a...

Rox: I wasn't sure either. I guess that leads me to conclude this: B/O, more than anything else, is a courier of talent for two very good actors, and one outstanding one. Sure, the script is witty, rhythmic, and forthright, but it never plunges into the depth or dialogue we crave, nor does it twist and turn in plot, which we might expect, given its similarities in tempo and shorthand to Mammet. It just goes to show, I guess, that it takes more than the ability to emulate greatness to be great.

Elle: Yeah, I thought there'd be some sort of twist, like Christopher killing Bruce after the nefarious Robert--

Rox: Don't give it away, Elle. Ok, so there was one little twist.

Elle: Even though I haven't been able to neatly slot it into comedy, drama, or even dramedy, it made me think.

Rox: About what, Elle?

Elle: Oh, power. The lengths people will go to get it. The powerless. How close we all are sometimes to "losing it." How we define people, things, words. And how compared to those three we're the perfect picture of rockin' good mental health.

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