The most fascinating aspect of Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange — making its Pittsburgh premiere as the first production of Pittsburgh's newest theater, The Phoenix — is just how long it takes the author to reveal himself.
This three-character play, which premiered in 2000, is set in a British mental institution, where Drs. Flaherty and Smith are wrestling over the diagnosis of Christopher, a young black man suffering hallucinations and the belief he is Idi Amin's son.
That Flaherty and Smith are running this institution, as opposed to being patients, is only one of Penhall's ideas. It's also possible he's writing about the corrupting influence of power and Britain's class system. But he also might be examining institutional racism, and wondering whether oppressors can ever sit in judgment of the oppressed.
For nearly the whole of his two terrifically written and exceedingly intelligent acts, Penhall twists us back and forth. Just when you think you've figured out what's at the heart of this play, Penhall flings us somewhere else, and keeping up with him gives this play its singular pleasure.
And none of that would be possible without this whip-smart Phoenix production. The company, born of the minds of local theatrical figures Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers, makes an audacious debut with Blue/Orange. As director, Paul has constructed a theatrical pressure-cooker. The play opens big, gets bigger and drives directly to the finish.
Watching Sam Tsoutsouvas play the loathsome Smith with all the snakelike charm he can muster is an intensely rewarding experience. David Whalen deploys a deft comedic hand with Flaherty's sniveling self-preservation. And a rock-solid Rico Parker gives life to the aching humanity at risk behind these shenanigans.
Ultimately the play does reveal itself — and while I won't give it away, I should say that Penhall's purpose turns out to be the least interesting of his options. His compelling ideas turn out to be MacGuffins, and he ends up having written a play about ...
Well, that's for you to find out. The final 10 minutes might be a little off, but that's negligible compared to the fiercely enjoyable evening of theater preceding them. Say hello to The Phoenix!