That age-old theatrical canard — the physician in need of physic — comes hurtling back to life in Joe Penhall’s “Blue/Orange,” a lively if increasingly implausible, even spurious play that has been given an adrenaline rush of a production by Roger Michell, returning to theater directing for the first time since “Notting Hill.” William Dudley’s set turns the National’s ever-inviting Cottesloe into a gladiatorial arena for three sharply distinct points of view, and the reconfiguration of the auditorium may remind some theatergoers of a previous play to make a comparable debating chamber of the same space — namely “Copenhagen.” Penhall’s play is as fevered, however, as its Frayn forbear (at least in London) was dry, and it contains a bizarre play-within-a-play in the wildly eccentric performance of its most fiery player, Bill Nighy. Enough theatergoers may be seduced by the alacrity of the staging to turn “Blue/Orange” into an issue-led hit. Only once the lights have dimmed on the characters’ gathering fury do you find yourself wondering whether Penhall’s play itself even begins to play fair.
There’s no denying the numerous buttons pushed by a script which seems dated in one way (even Penhall seems to admit in passing that his dramatic borrowings from R.D. Laing amount to lazy appropriation) and timely in many others: With care-in-the-community an ever more urgent concern across Britain, not to mention the pressures on an overstretched National Health Service and the ever-emotive wild card that is race, the moment could hardly be riper for a play in which the future of a black schizophrenic, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s enormously likable Christopher, is debated by two white middle-class doctors. From the outset, it’s clear the milieu will offer up dramatic meat, even if Dudley’s spare design (an elegant glass table with a fruit bowl resting on it) suggests a minimal chic well beyond the purview of the Blair-era NHS.
Both medics, we quickly learn, have a vested interest in Christopher’s case. Nighy’s Robert is an Eluard-quoting consultant with an eye on a professorship and a rather alarmingly casual approach to this particular patient in his care. At the same time, Bruce (Andrew Lincoln), Robert’s subordinate, won’t be silenced on his stance toward Christopher’s fate. While Robert is ready to send the 24-year-old fruit vendor back on to London’s mean streets, Bruce advocates caution. After all, if a patient persists in thinking that an orange is blue (hence the title), what far greater disturbances might he be capable of if discharged into the world at large?
Penhall dealt with mental illness before in his 1994 Royal Court play “Some Voices,” which played briefly Off Broadway last season, so he clearly understands both sides of the argument that fuels “Blue/Orange.” It isn’t long, however, before Christopher emerges as the odd man out in the play’s equation in more ways than one. It’s not just — as the play suggests — that being black in white society fosters its own schizophrenia, so that Christopher’s paranoid hallucinations might in fact be a natural response to a troublingly racist climate. More disturbing within the actual writing is that Christopher seems as much a pawn of the dramatist as he does of his warring physicians.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Penhall felt more comfortable inhabiting the skin of the white medical establishment rather than that of a disaffected black patient whose father may be Idi Amin or Muhammad Ali (or neither). But one becomes well aware early on that the play’s most engaging character — his supposed friendlessness, indeed, is hard to fathom — is also the one treated least fully, as if Christopher’s main function were to have points scored off him. Which is what Bruce and Robert, for two highly charged acts, do.
Having defined the doctors’ dilemmas, Penhall has a harder time tethering them to a sensible narrative, although he could well argue that notions of the sensible don’t apply in such an environment. As in “Copenhagen” (albeit on a less grandiose scale), Penhall gives his adversaries a shared social history that bumps up against their professional present, though their overlapping interests here pertain not to complementarity but to the rather less lofty realms of rugby and Welsh rarebit. And while the ending casts a knowing — and chilling — nod toward a culture of litigation readily comprehensible on either side of the Atlantic, one can’t help noting the dramatist’s readiness to assign opinions at random without regard for theplay’s people. Bruce, for instance, becomes the subject of an inquiry that would seem the far more logical domain of Robert, whose blithe disregard for professional propriety, in turn, makes one wonder how he ever got as far as he has. (Or maybe that’s the very point.)
Complicating matters no end is Nighy’s bewildering performance, a putative star turn so self-conscious and inappropriate that the character’s rather aggressive vanity is all but obliterated by that of the actor. It doesn’t help that Ejiofor and Lincoln — the latter building impressively to an envenomed breakdown as unhistrionic as Nighy’s is indulgent — both exist in empathic service to the text throughout. Nighy, by contrast, seems distractingly outside it, his slouchy body language (on several occasions at the matinee caught he was loping sufficiently far forward that one feared for his balance) recalling, of all things, Peter O’Toole’s celebrated drunk in “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.” Inebriation figures in its own way in “Blue/Orange” as regards a writer so punch drunk on ideas that the play gets lost amid the posturing.