For Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers, the choice of how to open their new theater company's first season was relatively easy. Blue/Orange — British playwright Joe Penhall's acclaimed, darkly funny 2000 play about schizophrenia, race and bureaucratic infighting — met their criteria of provocative theater targeting a diverse audience.
Startup troupe The Phoenix offers the play's Pittsburgh premiere, with performances Nov. 1-23 at the Downtown home of Southers' Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
The production, directed by Paul, stars two actors familiar to local stages and a relative newcomer. David Whalen, perhaps Pittsburgh's busiest stage actor, and Sam Tsoutsouvas — well known to Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre audiences — portray psychiatrists battling over the treatment of a young black man. One believes Chris might be an undiagnosed schizophrenic; the other thinks he should be discharged. Dayton, Ohio-based Rico Parker plays Chris — who claims his father is the bloody Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Blue/Orange won several best-new-play awards. In the U.K., the 13-year-old play remains popular enough that a national tour was mounted last year. "The play treats a familiar theme — who's mad and who's sane? — with pulse-quickening insight and wit," wrote reviewer Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph of that touring production. "It cuts to the heart of controversial questions about cultural assumptions and racial prejudice with surgical precision."
In Pittsburgh, whose local landscape is crowded with theater companies large and small, The Phoenix is an ambitious venture — especially for its founders, who recently lost prominent roles in that terrain. In February, Paul was fired as artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, the company he co-founded in 1997. And Southers was laid off as head of theater initiatives at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, due to budget constraints.
Paul says Blue/Orange should resonate with American audiences, and not just because it confronts the volatile way race intersects with diagnoses of mental illness.
"The play is so accessible because of the humor," says Paul. "The issues don't feel like they're being pushed down your throat."
That humor does have a particularly sardonic, British tone. But as seen in rehearsal, Penhall's dialogue combines the prickly music of a Harold Pinter with the brisk momentum of Penhall's acknowledged influence, David Mamet.