Things start out eccentrically enough. Psychiatrist Bruce (Brian Paulette) is reviewing the case of patient Christopher (Jamaly Allen), whose 28-day hospital stay is in its last 24 hours.
Bruce isn't sure if Christopher is ready to be discharged. He suspects that his patient's self-diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, as well as Christopher's claims about hallucinations, might be bogus.
Christopher claims, for example, that the oranges in a bowl in the examination room look bright blue to him. There's no way to prove what Christopher says is true, of course, and Bruce is faced with a quandary -- are the hallucinations real?
Unfortunately, it's really hard to care one way or the other.
This prolonged production -- at 140 minutes, it's nearly an hour too long -- never catches the imagination, so it's hard to be fired up, for example, when Christopher ups the ante on his craziness and claims to be the son of deposed dictator Idi Amin.
We might be more interested if Allen's performance weren't all jittery mannerisms and lip-biting, as if he were starring in a community theater's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And that reference isn't wholly gratuitous -- by intermission, I was thinking of Chief smashing his way out of the psych ward with the water cannon and wishing I could only do the same.
Things improve marginally when Allen cedes the stage to Bruce and an older doctor, Robert (Stuart Rider), who take opposing views on the case. But again, the patient's well being is already so uninteresting that the debate is almost meaningless.
Penhall's play then becomes a debate between Bruce's young, caring professional and Robert's melodramatic villain, who just cares about the hospital's bottom line. Sadly, the writer believes he's breaking news: a thoughtless medical bureaucracy! Even worse, Robert turns out to have a pang of conscience, declaring with all seriousness, "Maybe we're the sick ones." I half expected Elizabeth Taylor to show up for Act Two of Suddenly, Last Summer, dazzlingly wardrobed for her lobotomy.
Penhall is not content merely to have the doctors argue about their cagey patient. Robert is also a dramatic foil for Bruce, causing the less experienced doctor to doubt his professionalism and, below the surface, his masculinity. But just when the play becomes something about a crisis of conscience -- which would be fine -- it seems to take on the structure of yet another play, one about political correctness (or its lack) in the health-care industry. Namely, that Christopher's ethnicity -- he's black -- might have something to do with his diagnosis. But like half a dozen other promising leads, this idea is dropped nearly as quickly as it's brought up, as if Penhall had too many other themes to throw into the mix.
It's not that a writer shouldn't ask lots of questions. But he shouldn't ask them at the expense of creating a clutter of ideas that makes time move at a snail's pace.
I liked Penhall's second act a little better. First, there's less of Allen. But there's also the payoff -- and director Joseph Price seems to be savvy to this -- in watching Paulette. The actor fully understands that emotions are more complex and unexpected than can be rendered by trembling hands and darting eyes.
At least in Paulette's work -- and in some of Rider's, though he tends to overact a bit in the first half -- there's a meaty play. It's a one-act about an honorable man who is being devoured by a dishonorable industry. Bruce is being suffocated metaphorically by red tape, and it's exciting to watch Paulette fight for air. Postscript: During the William Inge Theater Festival in Independence, Kansas, the week before last, this year's honoree, Arthur Laurents, offered up some thoughts on such topics as his old work versus his new, the state of the theater today, and his long friendship with Inge, the Independence native who wrote such modern classics as Picnic and Bus Stop.
It took several years to get Laurents to accept the honor at all. "They asked me several years ago, and I kept saying no," he said. "I don't care very much about honors and awards. It's a long trip to get here, and spending four days to be honored seemed to be extreme. But Peter Ellenstein, the director of the festival, said to me, 'If someone like you comes here and says one thing that makes an impression on somebody ... 'So I said, 'Fair enough.'"
Retrospectives like the festival's Saturday night tribute to his career aren't particularly nostalgic for him. "It's all in the past, and I don't live in the past. I live in the now," he said. "I know they're giving me this award for what I've done that's well-known, but I'm more interested in what I'm doing now. That's a real achievement for someone my age."
Among those well-known credits for the 85-year-old Laurents are his book for two of the best musicals ever written, Gypsy and West Side Story, and the screenplays for The Way We Were and The Turning Point. If he has anything to teach young writers, it's perhaps a review of the basics.
"I hate to say this, but most of the new playwrights don't know how to structure a play," he said. "They don't know from character and story. It's like action painting -- they conceive of a notion, not an idea, and they have a first act and then it falls apart. Maybe it's my age, but I'm tired of these youth-angst plays, where they discover at 22 that life is not so great. Well, it is great if you make it great."
He's not completely averse to new writers, though. He expresses admiration for The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh and two plays by Mark Ravenhill. "I liked Handbag and Shopping and Fucking, which was terrific," he said.
Discussing his relationship with Inge, Laurents said, "I knew him very well. He was very troubled. And an alcoholic, you know. He latched on to me because I had been psychoanalyzed and was happy and a writer. He thought I had some secret he could get, and I told him, 'You can't get it from anyone else. You have to get it yourself.'
"And he had a terrible phobia," Laurents continued. "Even at his own plays, he would only sit in the last row -- he was terrified of being trapped. And he was terrified of being trapped in life, which he was."