Two plays that poke at the underbelly of the modern human condition opened this past weekend: Parlour Song, by Jez Butterworth (produced by Quantum Theatre), and Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange (from The Phoenix, a new theatre company).
In Parlour Song we encounter Ned (Cameron Knight), a thirty-something demolitions expert in the midst of a (rather early) midlife crisis. “Everything is disappearing,” he tells his charismatic best friend Dale (Brendan McMahon) — a statement he means literally, as his lifetime accumulation of stuff mysteriously disappears, bit by bit, from the drawers and closets and garages and sheds where he’s had them stored. But the statement stands as a metaphor for a certain moment in life, a certain epiphanical stage, when those of us who are reflective and attentive begin to think about what really matters as we get older, perhaps wiser…perhaps not…and the accumulation of physical matter begins to highlight all of the intangible happinesses and values for which all the stuff that marks our status and success in the world can’t possibly be a substitute. Ned’s marriage to the beautiful and sexy Joy (Sarah Silk) is unhappy, for reasons that are not always crystal clear, but then — when are such reasons ever clear? In its probing at the edges of what makes a life start to fall apart (and in its perceptive awareness of the mundane and sometimes trivial things that help keep it, barely, together), Butterworth’s play makes palpable the malaise that creeps, like a damp fog, into the unseen crevices and valleys that spiderweb the mental landscapes of people who live what appear on the surface to be happy, contented, successful middle-class lives.
Quantum’s production, which sets the play’s cookie-cutter suburban interior into an abandoned cookie-cutter restaurant at the Waterfront mall, highlights the menace that seems to lurk just around the corner of Ned’s otherwise rather unexceptional life. At times, this heightened sense of menace feels like a red herring, as it sets up expectations for an explosive external conflict that never really materializes. The interest here is in the internal struggles of the characters as they try to carve out something that looks like a meaningful and individualized experience in a milieu that imposes conformity down to the minutia of kitchen hardware.
Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange is set in a conformity-imposing institution different in degree and kind to modern suburbia, but perhaps not so much different in its sinister effects. Christopher (played by Rico Romalus Parker) is an “Afro-Caribbean” diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who is on the last day of a legally mandated month-long stint in a British mental institution (after, it seems, having committed public act, alluded to later in the play, of sexual violence on a piece of citrus fruit); his doctor, Bruce (David Whalen) has misgivings about discharging him, believing that he is displaying symptoms of schizophrenia. Bruce’s supervisor, Robert (Sam Tsoutsouvas), has a different theory: he believes that Christopher’s erratic behavior is not the expression of mental illness but rather a “normal” and appropriate response to a pervasive racism that the ethnocentric white psychological community fails to perceive. Much (often quite giddily hilarious) conflict ensues, as Christopher adroitly manipulates his “handlers” from his position of powerlessness while the two psychologists stake out intellectual territory, each using Christopher as something of a “guinea pig” (yes, that’s the word they use, and the race card gets played right with it) in his attempt to prove himself right (or, at the very least, the other wrong).
There is, however, no right answer to the dilemma Christopher poses to the world of the play – and to ours, by analogy – and that’s part of the play’s point. Christopher doesn’t want to be institutionalized and shut up with truly crazy people, but, lacking family and community, he has no real “home” to return to, and the absence of any support structure outside the institution virtually guarantees that he’ll only become less stable and more likely to do something that will harm himself or others. This dilemma holds whether the cause of his erratic behavior and thinking is caused by racism or by mental illness, giving the lie to both doctors’ claims that Christopher’s best interests are what motivates their decisions and actions (other things they do and say further undermine those claims, too). And the dilemma is only exacerbated by the hard and cruel reality of the limited resources dedicated to mental health services (in the UK, apparently, just as in the US), which pressures doctors and social workers to release barely-diagnosed mentally ill patients to the streets with a prescription and a handshake.
All this may sound like depressing stuff, but Penhall gives us ample opportunity to laugh at the absurdity and (I choose this next word deliberately) craziness of the whole situation. Director Andrew Paul has cast the play beautifully. Parker is convincing and sympathetic as the addled, nervous, and occasionally hallucinating Christopher, and he gives ready glimpses of the violence that shimmers just below the surface of what seem to be otherwise harmless delusions and confusions. Whalen takes us on a complex emotional journey with Bruce, whose entire world gets yanked out from under him during the course of the play, and Tsoutsouvas gives a bravuro performance as the smug and self-serving senior “authority” Robert, who (ironically) demonstrates by his own behavior both that what gets defined as mental illness is a matter of cultural expectation, and that mental illness is not always a barrier to professional and social success.