Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

TROUBLE IN MIND, superbly directed by Robin Stanton, written by Alice Childress and currently performed at the Aurora Theatre Company of Berkeley is a stimulating, provocative potpourri of irony and contradiction.

Structurally, the play is a play within a play: specifically, it is a play about rehearsing a Broadway play; the imbedded play being CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE.

The year is 1957; the season is Autumn; and the day is Monday.

The chaos however is not confined to Belleville: it erupts at a rehearsal when African American cast members take rightful umbrage with the stereotypic characters contained in the BELLEVILLE script.

The play is resplendent with ethnic and cultural diversity, yet it is ironic that a play, crafted to expose African American stereotypes in theatre, relies so heavily on other popular stereotypes.

The chief malefactor in the show is the director character: Al Manners (played masterfully, almost infuriatingly so, by Tim Kniffin).

Al Manners is brash, abusive, petulant, insensitive, tyrannical, remote, uncompromising and unmistakably identified as a WASP (i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant); he is pitted against nearly every character in the show.

Given the subtle clues that MS Childress discretely seeds into the script, it is apparent that the stage assistant: Eddie Fenton (played by Patrick Russell) is gay.

Eddie is wrongly and disproportionally castigated by Al Manners for not having deflected a disturbing phone call from Al’s ex-wife.

Henry, the doorman, is Irish; replete with his Tam O’Shatter hat no less.

Henry deliberately provokes Al by ignoring his request for Danish and substituting jelly-filled donuts instead.

Henry uses the reprimand he receives from Al as a springboard, to reveal that he comes from a fighting Irish family and has strong opinions over British rule in Northern Ireland.

Leaping from Danish to "Home Rule," Henry dredges up the turmoil overtaking Ireland due no doubt to the English or WASP types.

Henry clearly sees his conflict with Al as emblematic, or as an extension, of the nagging Irish-English conflict that stretches back 800 unrelenting tit-for-tat years in Belfast.

Henry’s donut caper comes off symbolically as the equivalent of an IRA pipe bomb attached to Al’s muffler.

The nefarious Al takes no prisoners: in a heated religious discussion cascading from the play, Al points accusingly to Bill O’Wray, who apparently is some relative of Abraham (the one drop rule must apply) and reminds Bill, “it was your people who crucified Christ.”

So, in addition to riding rough-shod over the gays and suppressing the Irish of the six counties, Al is also a raging anti-Semitic: righteously carping to the Jews for their deicide.

After speaking with his ex-wife on the phone, Al shares with the cast and crew that his ex-wife now has a boy friend—apparently a real man—as Al reports himself as totally “emasculated” by the situation.

The revelation seems to reassure the entire cast that Al may be a successful director and the boss on the set but, as they may have covertly suspected, he is fundamentally a failure as a man and as a human being . . . what a relief to confirm that Al has feet of clay.

Bill O’Wray (played by Michael Ray Wisely), who has been exposed by Al as a Jew, is aloof: only reluctantly will he eat with the rest of the company: we are certain that kosher food is not necessarily the issue.

Bill is also a man with options: in addition to being selected for CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE, Bill in snuggly cast in soap operas: Bill is a man holding two passports.

Judy Sears (played by Melissa Quine) is the apotheosis of the Caucasian girl: she is blonde, she hails from Connecticut: the very Citadel of White America; and she is a graduate of Yale: the highest expression of WASP privilege.

Admittedly, this is a play about stereotyping African Americans in theater, but one might wonder if this play would have worked as well had the tyrannical director been a hapless Irishman, a deicidal Jew or an African American.

No one is suggesting that, like the movie AVATAR, the nefarious villain is rendered even more despicable when he is an old white, single, straight, Protestant man.

It seems that such men can be vilified with guaranteed immunity.

It does seem as if the cast of characters is too conveniently cogent, too off the shelf and resting too soundly on culturally embraced stereotypes and prejudices.

TROUBLE IN MIND is a play for our times, it is an Obie winning script, flawlessly produced by the award winning Aurora Theatre and should not be missed.

For tickets through September 26 th, contact the box office at 510-843-4822 or on the web.