By Lynn Venhaus

Three actors deliver brilliantly nuanced performances in “Blue/Orange,” a multi-layered satirical comedy-drama that focuses on madness, health care and race within a framework of frustrating bureaucracy and power struggles.

William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie, and Jason Meyers turn in some of their best work by grasping every shifting thought, trigger and changing attitude in conversations that blur lines on mental health.

The discourse is hefty and the roles demanding, for the characters are opaque. Allegiances switch as reasoning seems plausible – but one can’t ever be certain in these fiery exchanges.

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting this intellectually stimulating material as its first indoor show inside the Tower Grove Abbey, their longtime home, in 2021. With a contemporary focus that is more tragic than comic, that tone suits the production’s interpretation of this thorny material.

Shrewdly written by British playwright Joe Penhall, known primarily for several “fringe” works, and set in a UK institution, the play, first staged by the National Theatre in 2000, went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, with Bill Nighy, as Robert, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher, nominated for several acting awards.

(More fun facts: Andrew Lincoln played Bruce and the three moved on to the London West End in 2001. The next year, the show opened off-Broadway, with Harold Perrineau Jr. as Christopher, and an acclaimed British revival in 2016 starred Daniel Kaluuya as the patient.)

Stray Dog has wisely decided to forego British accents, so that we are not distracted from the dense amount of dialogue that rapidly volleys back and forth.

The day before Christopher (William Humphrey) is supposed to be discharged from a psychiatric ward, his doctor (Jason Meyers) begins to have reservations that he shouldn’t be released. He shares his concerns with a senior colleague (Ben Ritchie).

Practically jumping for joy as the hyper Christopher, Humphrey is gleefully ready to go – and already packed. He still insists his father is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada Oumee and sees the pulp inside an orange as blue. In his mind, is this real or delusional? Thus begins a bureaucratic battle.

As the now confused patient becomes increasingly agitated, is he having an acute psychotic episode or is he being unduly provoked? What must happen to prevent him from leaving?

Christopher was diagnosed with a borderline personality order, and on day 28 at the London National Health Service mental hospital, he is due for release – unless a diagnosis changes.

As Dr. Bruce Flaherty, Meyers sees red flags and makes a convincing case that Christopher could be a paranoid schizophrenic. His superior, Dr. Robert Smith, doesn’t detect it. Exuding authority and clinical acumen. Ritchie recites reasons why psychiatry can fail black men like Christopher. After all, Dr. Smith is writing a book – interesting! – on the cultural and ethnocentrism factors that come into play in these situations.

Perhaps drum beating and seeing himself as a “white savior,” the imperious Robert thinks Christopher should return to his neighborhood for the cultural support – even though he lives alone and doesn’t know that many people. Sure, his behavior is odd, but is it cause for alarm?

Smith is worried that if Christopher stays longer, he could get worse and thus begin a never-ending cycle — or is that more of a reflection on the lack of beds and prevalent bottom-line thinking?

Christopher would really like to return to Africa, where he says he has a job, but will settle for his diverse London borough neighborhood if it means his freedom. And there is a probable threat of being attacked by racist thugs, so his fear seems real, but is it indicative of instability – and is pompous Robert being patronizing?

England’s cultural population includes Caribbean and African expatriates, and there are statistics that more black people, percentage wise, are in mental and penal institutions.

And what exactly causes seemingly stable Bruce’s third-act meltdown – and earlier blurting out the “N” word, which could fill an entire act with discussion. This really complicates the narrative, not just exposing an ugly prejudice and stereotypical thinking.

However, the roots of the problems are in the eye of the beholder. As the two professionals argue, drawing Christopher, pawn-like, into a tug of war of damaging rhetoric – clearly emotional scars are being inflicted.

Is this in any way beneficial and do the doctors think this will advance their careers?  

Penhall’s incendiary words, written more than two decades ago, seems as urgent now as they were relevant then. This is a living, breathing work that changes direction throughout its two acts, and the verbal dexterity required is admirable.

In a bracing portrayal, Humphrey straddles the line of helpless vulnerability and angry advocate for getting his life back on track. Both instinctive, Ritchie and Meyers convincingly earn and lose their characters’ credibility.

Associate Artistic Director Justin Been deftly moves the actors around so that we are caught off-guard as characters reveal their positions, transferring the ‘edge’ around – and the performers never get ahead of the script, not tipping their hand about what’s next.

The cast has smartly constructed their roles. It’s an exemplary showcase of control, and lack of, as perceptions differ and speeches flow.

“Blue/Orange” could have easily turned preachy but keeps its intensity, although the second act gets weighed down somewhat with repetitive opinions. And while it’s not predictable, the ending may not satisfy those who have become invested in Christopher’s well-being.

Besides directing, Been also designed the claustrophobic set and the sound, and both he and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell gathered the props. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow maintained the setting’s institutional glare.

The hell that is the ever-present boondoggle for those suffering from mental illness shows no sign of improvement in today’s uncertain world. As this riveting production demonstrates, it’s a difficult subject to ponder, and “Blue/Orange” daringly takes a stand.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey and Ben Ritchie in “Blue/Orange.” Photo by John Lamb.

“Blue/Orange” is presented Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 7-9, 14-16 and 21-23 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104.

Limited tickets are available because of physical distancing throughout the theater. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org, or call 314-865-1995.

Safety precautions because of the COVID-19 public health crisis are in place for guests, actors, and staff. Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated. The up-to-date guidelines can be found on their website.

By Lynn Venhaus
At times, friendship is not always the perfect ‘blendship.’ Case in point: “Art,” a razor-sharp comedy currently being staged outdoors by Stray Dog Theatre through Aug. 21.

A friendship that spans 15 years is strained over a piece of modern art – an expensive, pretentious painting that art snob Serge (Ben Ritchie) has purchased to show off his privilege and to gain status.

The judgmental Marc (Stephen Peirick), who is domineering, snarky and self-righteous, takes one look and is aghast at this presumably “white” canvas.

With his “Are you serious?” reaction, Marc doesn’t hold back his horror, bluntly calling the vanity purchase a “piece of (expletive deleted),” even if Serge paid 200,000 francs for it.

Serge vehemently disagrees. He points out there is texture. It is, after all, by an artist of some note.

Later, they pull their more sensitive friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier) into taking sides, and he, not wanting to rock the boat, offers a “maybe it has merit” viewpoint. Now he is caught in the middle between two alpha dogs.

Yvan’s comments push Marc’s buttons even further, calling into question the conciliatory one’s intellectual acumen – and life choices – because he might see some artistic significance.  

Yvan is a poorer, put-upon chap about to be married, whose life seems to always be stuck in second gear. Anxious about the wedding, keeping both families’ happy, getting acclimated to a new job – it all seems too much for him, and then the two pals draw him into their tiff.  

Serge is a dermatologist, Marc an aeronautical engineer and Yvan, well, he’s not really one with a ‘career’ – he just started working for his future father-in-law in the stationery business.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick and Jeremy Goldmeier in “Art” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by John Lamb.

The subjective debate turns into ugly confrontations that devolve into personal attacks, questioning the meaning of friendship and the definition of art. Their opinions – perhaps over-sharing but doubling down on how they feel – cause immediate fractures. Can respect and trust be restored or will the fallout be too much to overcome?

The dialogue is intricate and brings out each character’s distinctive personalities. As mud is flung, the play still retains some good zingers after 27 years.

All Stray Dog regulars, Peirick, Ritchie and Goldmeier settle into a rhythm that reflects their ease of working with each other.

This clever and humorous work by Yasmina Reza, a master at delving into contemporary foibles and a sharp observer of human behavior, was written in 1994.

Christopher Hampton translated it into English. He won an Oscar this past April for adapting another French playwright, Florian Zeller, into a screenplay for the British film, “The Father.”

“Art” opened on Broadway in 1998 after successful runs in Paris and London, winning the Tony Award for Best Play. It starred Alan Alda (Marc), Victor Garber (Serge) and Alfred Molina (Yvan, Tony nominee).

Reza also wrote “God of Carnage,” which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009. That show was produced by Stray Dog Theatre in 2015 and featured Peirick.

Re-emerging after a 16-month coronavirus public health crisis, Stray Dog Theatre has chosen well to begin producing shows again for a live audience.

In a wise stroke during these pandemic times, Artistic Director Gary F. Bell moved the production outside at their usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. On the lawn is limited, socially distanced seating, and masks are required (city mandate).

The bare-bones outdoor stage, with scenic design by Josh Smith, features two couches to represent the flats of Serge and Yvan – and of course, artwork, relying on its trio of accomplished actors to focus the action on their nimble wordplay.  

Longtime lighting designer Tyler Duenow handled those duties and Justin Been, associate artistic director, provided his usual stellar sound design with acumen for appropriately selected music

The dialogue is challenging, and the actors must shift tones, delivery and their body language while staying true to the characters, no easy feat. The trio hit their stride – despite after such a long absence from the stage – and retain the play’s acid bite.

Goldmeier is splendid at portraying a sad sack trying to avoid confrontation and scrutiny. It’s obviously not his day, week, month or even year. His emotional fragility and near-meltdown are played for laughs, and Goldmeier adroitly handles the mood swings – and his complicated monologues.

Peirick conveys the tightly wound traits of Marc, while Ritchie delivers a nuanced portrait of a sophisticate, holding his ground about his beliefs and acquisitions.

Marc will go on to question everything – including choice of restaurant for dinner — mostly in a sarcastic, irritated tone. It’s clear that Serge thinks he is intellectually superior to his friends, and more cultured, while Yvan has valued their companionship, especially in light of his messier life.

Keenly in tune with the material and his actors’ capabilities, Bell has smoothly directed the show.

“Art” is a provocateur, questioning our thoughts on art, relationships and modern society. It’s a refreshing conversation starter for anyone craving intellectual stimulation and presented in a safe setting for an evening of entertainment.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie in “Art.” Photo by John Lamb.

“Art” runs about 90 minutes without intermission. The Stray Dog Theatre presentation is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Aug. 5-21, with an additional performance on Sunday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m., outdoors on the lawn at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. The seating pods of 2 and 4, for only 40 guests, will be filled from front to back, in guest arrival order, starting a half hour before curtain.  For tickets or more information: straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

All staff and crew will be wearing masks. Actors will not be wearing masks but are required to be vaccinated to work at Stray Dog Theatre. All guests, vaccinated or not, are asked to wear masks now that a city mandate is in effect.

FYI – Four of the remaining seven shows are sold out.

Artistic Director Gary F. Bell has announced that Stray Dog Theatre plans to return to live performances in late summer and get back to a full season in 2022.

“It has been so very long since we’ve been able to see you in person at the Tower Grove Abbey. I want to start off by thanking you all for supporting SDT’s Digital Series during this unusual time. Today, I am so happy to announce that Stray Dog Theatre has an exciting and vibrant plan for returning to live theatre! We have missed you all so much, and are beyond thrilled to share with you all of our wonderful upcoming offerings,” he said.

Stray Dog is starting with a 2021 Limited Series, which includes three plays in the last half of the year: ‘ART’ by Yasmina Reza, with adaptation by Christopher Hampton, premiering in August 2021; “Blue/Orange” by Joe Penhall in October 2021; “Who’s Holiday” by Matthew Lombardo in December 2021.

“A whole new season will premiere in 2022 and will offer a complete season of 6 plays and musicals just like in the past. We’re excited to announce more about this soon,” Bell said.

A new website will go live on July 1. Prior to July, you can purchase tickets for any of the 2021 Limited Series by calling the box office at (314) 865-1995.

“As always, all of us at Stray Dog Theatre are thinking of you and your safety as we plan our 2021 Limited Series and the brand new 2022 Season. We’re ready when you are!” Bell said.

TICKETS & SHOW GUIDELINES FOR THE 2021 LIMITED SERIES



As a return celebration, the 2021 Limited Series tickets will be $25 per person/per show* and are available by calling the box office at (314) 865-1995. Starting July 1, 2021, you may also purchase tickets by visiting www.straydogtheatre.org.

During the 2021 Limited Series, seating may be limited and offered in “pods” of 2 or 4 which will be physically distanced for maximum safety. If you have any questions please contact us at the box office at (314) 865-1995.

For your safety and ours, all actors, tech crew, and Stray Dog Theatre employees have been vaccinated.

We will be following all local and federal safety guidelines during each production.

*Season Subscriptions are not available for the 2021 Limited Series but will return for our 2022 Season. Ticket prices will return to normal for the 2022 Season.

ART

by Yasmina Rezawith adaptation by Christopher Hampton

Marc, Serge, and Yvan have been the best of friends for years. When Serge buys a very expensive piece of art, the intellectual and emotional arguments that ensue become less theoretical and more personal and threaten to destroy their friendships.

‘ART‘ will be presented under the stars on our gorgeous Tower Grove Abbey lawn.

8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays August 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21.Additional performance Sunday, August 15 at 8PM. 

Blue/Orange

Blue/Orange
by Joe Penhall
The day before Christopher is due to be discharged from a psychiatric ward, his doctor has reservations and raises his concerns with a senior colleague. Blue/Orange is an incendiary tale of race, madness, and a Darwinian power struggle at the heart of a dying National Health Service.
BLUE/ORANGE will be presented inside the historic Tower Grove Abbey.
8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays October 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23.Additional performance Sunday, October 17 at 2 PM.

Who’s Holiday

by Matthew Lombardo
You saw her last when she was just two
Celebrate the holidays with Cindy Lou Who
Pull up a seat and fill up your cup
‘Cause your favorite little Who is all grown up
A wildly funny and heartfelt adults-only comedy that explores the twisted tales after that fateful night when a certain Grinch tried to steal Christmas. For Mature Audiences.
WHO’S HOLIDAY will be presented inside the historic Tower Grove Abbey.
8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays December 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18.Additional performance Sunday, December 12 at 2 PM.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Oh, that puppy love. American playwright A.R. Gurney’s absurd comedy “Sylvia” presents
a marital conflict caused by a pretty pooch. In this case, the mutt takes on
human form and talks in perfect English. To buy into the conceit is to believe
the female fur child in its interaction with her male best friend, and it’s apparent
they are a tad too close.

That’s the premise in this drawing-room comedy, originally set in the 1980s, which first appeared off-Broadway in 1995, starred Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in a limited Broadway engagement in 2015 and has become a favorite of adventurous theater troupes and dog lovers everywhere.

In Stray Dog Theatre’s production, energetic Susie Lawrence is expressive as the preening and prancing puppy that Greg takes a shine to in NYC’s Central Park. Wearing knee pads and modern girlie outfits, Sylvia — the name’s on her tag — happily makes herself at home in an Upper West Side apartment where an empty-nest couple have started the second chapter of their life, now that the kids are grown.

Kate and Greg are a cookie-cutter WASP pair, married 22 years. Likeable Kay Love and Tim Naegelin are the longtime married couple whose relationship begins to unravel when the dog comes between them. Is he just going through a mid-life crisis or does the obsession signal more? It could be construed as a romantic triangle on the icky side.

The trouble with the husband and wife characters is that
they’re bland. And there is not much to like about the generic one-note Kate,
who is back to work teaching and working on a master’s degree in English. Irritated
the minute she’s introduced, Kate takes an immediate dislike to the dog and
tried to veto it becoming part of the family. She refers to the dog as Saliva,
which is no longer funny after the first reference.
Greg appears adrift and gains no sympathy as he does nothing to repair things
with his wife. He has lost his mojo as a financial analyst after the kids left.
He doesn’t much like his job, quarrels with his boss, and starts spending more
and more time doting on Sylvia. Playing with a dog outdoors is healthy for all,
right?

Well, not exactly, because the affection becomes creepy when Greg would rather be with the flirty dog than with humans. And it’s the only time vanilla Greg lights up.

Kate doesn’t ring true about her all-consuming hatred of the dog right away, while Greg’s bizarre behavior would alarm a therapist much quicker than when he eventually gets to one. Kate’s aggravation at the dog should grow as Sylvia chews shoes, sheds all over the couch, leaves puddles and encroaches on her personal space. The exasperation needed to build, not be at the same level as the beginning.

Photo by John LambAs the therapist in the second act, a New Age eccentric named Leslie who purposely does not want to be defined by any gender, Melissa Harlow is a hoot – and the visual sight gag of her tacky velour purple top and gold-print black palazzo pants is as amusing as her goofy accent, not unlike Martin Short as the wedding planner in “Father of the Bride.”

In fact, with her comic flair Harlow steals the whole shebang portraying three characters, two in the first act. Experienced at interactive comedy shows and mystery dinner theater where she works in St. Louis, she is the breakout star here.

Melissa Harlow and Kay Love. Photo by John Lamb

Laugh-out-loud funny as Phyllis, a typical but high-strung socialite who becomes unnerved by Sylvia’s over-enthusiastic greeting, Harlow had the audience howling as she became more agitated and unglued. The gifted comic actress recalls the classic sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show” or “Saturday Night Live.”

Her first character, Tom, is a ‘bro,’ a guy in the park who shares way too much information with Greg about interpersonal relationships and dog psychology.

Harlow is believable as all three – and it’s customary for one person to play them all. She brightened every scene she’s in, for as two acts progress in nearly two and a half hours, the play gets repetitive and somewhat tedious. Gurney could have tied everything up in a one-act because basically it’s an extended one-joke play and drags getting to its predictable conclusion.

Because she’s so animated, Lawrence is in contrast with the dull couple. That’s why Harlow’s antics are such a bright spot as well.

In the larger picture, Gurney, famous for his piercing look at the privileged Manhattanites in such works as “The Cocktail Hour” and “The Dining Room,” is making a bigger statement about humans’ desperate need to connect in an impersonal world, even if it’s with an animal.

Now that rings true. Gurney, whose best-known play is “Love Letters,” inexplicably falls back on tired clichés. The play could have benefited from more biting wit and frank social analysis.

Director Gary F. Bell has updated its time, now in 2000. He makes use of the Tower Grove Abbey’s small confines well, allowing frisky Lawrence to scamper about in scenic designer Miles Bledsoe’s suitable living quarters interior, with interesting skyline pieces as background.

Without opening up the play, it could be claustrophic. The outdoor scenes help change the scenery.

Bell dedicated the show to his own canine companion, Oliver Ogden Bell, and includes some choice quotes in the program as director’s notes, including this gem from John Steinbeck: “I’ve seen a  look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

No one is credited with sound, but the selection of music interludes is always pitch-perfect, whether it was Bell or Associate Artistic Director Justin Been. Use of the Cole Porter song, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which is included with the script, is a lovely rendition because the cast has good voices.

If you are a ‘dog person,’ you might not mind the contrasts in tone, or the depicted fantasy. “Sylvia” is one of those plays that divides people, depending on their point of view. The cast and crew put forth a terrific effort, but to me, the playwright barks up the wrong tree.

Tim Naegelin and Susie Laawrence. Photo by John LambStray Dog Theatre presented “Sylvia” June 6 –
June 22 at the Tower Grove Abbey. For more information about the professional
theater troupe and their new season, which starts in August, visit
www.straydogtheatre.org