Thursday, October 9, 2003

Cromer is red-hot in 'Blue'

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Every year, one of the things I most look forward to is a knockout stage turn by Bruce Cromer. This season, it's in Ensemble's Blue/Orange, a showy London hit about mental health care in Great Britain.

Cromer is the urbane if inhumane Dr. Smith, the "authority" in a psychiatric hospital who follows the line of least resistance - and takes no prisoners when a subordinate balks at assembly line treatment.

Running at close to three hours, Blue/Orange is a show that likes to hear itself talk, but the conversation is endlessly literate and Ensemble is always at its best when Playhouse in the Park provides a guest director.

In this case its Playhouse associate artistic director Michael Haney who delivers a production as sharp as playwright Joe Penhall's angry indictment.

Blue/Orange bursts with energy from its opening moment. Newbie psychiatrist Bruce (Jeff Groh) is meeting with patient Christopher (Demond Robertson) in a consulting room and waiting for a second opinion from his mentor/boss Smith.

Christopher, angry and excitable, is anxiously awaiting his release in 24 hours. Bruce hedges. Chris has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a tidy problem that will get him a quick release. But Bruce believes he's textbook schizophrenic, which is a lot messier. Smith hates messes.

Christopher happens to be black, which sends Smith off into philosophical heaven as he quotes poets Paul Eluard and Allen Ginsburg and ponders the quirks of ethnocentricity - who are white Europeans to define what is sane or insane in people of other cultures?

Even as Smith expertly demonstrates the rules of "playing the game" and coming out at the top of the mental health bureaucracy, the playwright never tires of game-playing as power shifts from character to character with not much better reason than making sure each actor has a chance for some major theatrics.

Penhall has other things on his mind, too. All sorts of politically incorrect thoughts are given voice to let us consider where exactly that line into racism is crossed. And how much anybody actually cares.

Groh gives a capable performance as a man whose honor and compassion fall away when he's backed against a wall. Robinson is terrific at barely leashed emotions, but on opening night he wasn't quite as comfortable with the British slang that peppers his dialogue.

Cromer's Smith will stand as one of this season's best performances, chilling in his lack of conscience, his self-satisfaction and delicious in his stylish delivery of erudite if cruelly inappropriate comments.

A word of warning: watch your step as you walk past the stage. Corners of the set are rendered all but invisible on either side of the low platform playing area. Two people tripped over it and fell on opening night and there was another near miss.

Blue/Orange, through Oct. 26, Ensemble Theatre, 421-3555.

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