Mad for Blue

Christopher, who may be insane, believes that the oranges in the bowl in the psychiatric hospital are a bright, luminous blue. His doctor, Bruce Flaherty, believes that this is evidence that Christopher is still mentally ill and shouldn't be sent home today, his intended day of release.

Thus begins the power- and ego-tripping that makes Blue/Orange such a provocative entertainment. Actors Theatre's production is expertly directed by Matthew Wiener and beautifully performed by a trio of gifted actors -- among them Jon Gentry, who, as ever when he appears on stage, walks off with the acting prize despite formidable competition.

Gentry plays Dr. Smith, the senior consultant and Flaherty's supervisor, who insists (whether he believes it or not; we never find out) that Christopher (Alvin Keith), a black man, sees color relative to his own ethnicity. As a cutthroat practitioner who's more interested in his own résumé than in his patients' well-being, Gentry browbeats Flaherty (Mathew Zimmerer) with menacing fury; moments later, he's cajoling Christopher with saccharine sweetness until both men are foaming at the mouth and the audience is practically levitating with anxiety.

Joe Penhall's play isn't one of those day-in-the-life-of-a-madhouse stories; in fact, Blue/Orange is less about mental illness than it is about race relations and the madness that power, both real and imagined, can bring. Its first act pits the two doctors -- one young and conscientious, the other older and more ruthless -- against one another; in Act Two, their patient joins this tug of war, and we find ourselves wondering just how sick he really is. And even while we're laughing at Penhall's wry humor (much of it at the expense of the British mental-health system), we find ourselves wondering which of these men is telling the truth. Does Dr. Smith really believe Christopher is well, or does he just want to free up another bed in his overcrowded hospital? Is the scrupulous young doctor corrupted by the horrors around him, or was he a selfish slut out for revenge and personal gain all along? And does Christopher actually believe that Idi Amin is his father, and that the oranges are blue? Or is he just afraid to leave the safety of the hospital and strike out in the real world?

I've lately made a second career of carping about the lame accents affected on local stages, and Blue/Orange is topping my list of shows in which a crummy attempt at accents nearly toppled an otherwise sturdy performance. Would that Wiener, who otherwise does a topnotch job of shepherding his actors in split-second shifts from high dudgeon to low comedy, had nixed the British accents after realizing that most of his players were incapable of producing them. Or that the other two players had followed Gentry's cue: He implies a British accent with firm diction and a clipped pronunciation. It's a close call, but not even bungled accents can divert its audience from Blue/Orange's well-drawn characters, its snaky story, its stimulating and sometimes enlightening discourse on what's real.