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Theater Review - Fully committed

In Blue/Orange, playwright Joe Penhall portrays an English mental health system so laden with catch-22s, they've become the rules, not the exceptions. Actor's Express' lively production reveals that Blue/Orange deeply explores its subject, but has a narrow view of human experience.

Christopher (Aaron Todd Douglas), a black itinerant Londoner, eagerly awaits his release after being institutionalized a month. But Bruce (Daniel May), Christopher's young psychologist, worries that his patient has serious mental problems and could injure himself or others outside the hospital. Robert (Richard Garner), Bruce's mentor, points out that they can't rediagnose Christopher until after he's acted out. "We can't do anything until he's done something."

With an idealistic junior doctor butting heads with an authority figure, Blue/Orange plays like an expanded subplot from "ER" or "St. Elsewhere." But Robert breaks the formula. He's no soulless bureaucrat but a casual, political creature, smug in his own power. Garner brings plenty of zest to the role, but at times gives Robert enough swagger to be a pirate.

The second act finds incongruous humor as Robert essentially tries to argue Christopher out of his mental illness. Douglas gives Christopher childish tantrums and enthusiasms, but he makes the performance more than just a series of outbursts. Ultimately though, he's just the catalyst for the doctors' conflict.

By Blue/Orange's last act, political correctness and flaws in the system turn almost Orwellian. May deftly negotiates the comedy of the first act, goggling at absurd rules like a Monty Python straight man, but shifts to righteous anger in the third act, when the stakes grow higher and more personal.

The performance runs long for its simple premise, as if Penhall plotted out every emotional possibility and insisted on touching them all, even after his indictment of the system has run its course. Actor's Express nevertheless offers a crisp staging that confidently takes on the play's verbal trickery. Blue/Orange explores the use and abuse of psychological jargon, and, as Bruce ponders, "If they get the meaning of the word 'wrong,' how can they get the patient right?"

Blue/Orange plays through Feb. 13 at Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 5 p.m. $10.75-$26.75. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.