Men and Boys

The Nomad Theatre's production of Orphans stands on its own.

With three plum roles, a tension-packed story line and streaks of black humor, Orphans has been a perennial favorite since it premiered at Los Angeles's Matrix Theatre in 1983. Given that it was originally produced by a group called Actors for Themselves, it's no surprise that Lyle Kessler's comic thriller is a perfect fit for troupes looking to push the artistic envelope while lining it with box-office cash. While the Nomad Theatre's production is a little rough around the edges, director Christopher Tabb and a trio of local actors manage to deliver the goods with passion, wit and flair.

Paul Borrillo anchors the ensemble with a fully realized portrait of Harold, a white-collar criminal from Chicago who takes refuge in a Philadelphia row house shared by a petty thief and his childlike brother. Exuding attitudes that range from goofy to threatening to blandly paternal, Borrillo colors the role with distinctive touches while also serving as the principal catalyst for action. He cranks up the heat when necessary, but his steady, understated ways during quieter scenes -- a slight gesture here, a tender touch on another's shoulder there -- are what sharpen the playwright's ideas about unspoken family bonds.

On the other end of the energy spectrum, actor Matthew Dente delights as Phillip, the younger of two orphaned brothers who has lived nearly all of his life indoors because, we're told, he's plagued with severe allergies. Convinced that he'll keel over if he breathes the air outside for more than a few seconds, Phillip leads a Being There kind of life, gesturing the same way a product model does on The Price Is Right and eating only food that he sees advertised on television. Bounding about the stage like a puppy suddenly thrust on a treadmill of polished linoleum, Dente captures perfectly Phillip's desire to live as boundless a life as possible within the confines of the only environment he has ever known.

Matthew Dente (left), Paul Borrillo and Eric C. Lawrence in Orphans.
Matthew Dente (left), Paul Borrillo and Eric C. Lawrence in Orphans.

In due time, we learn that his older brother, Treat, is largely responsible for defining the scope of Phillip's environs. As played by Dente's real-life sibling, Eric C. Lawrence, Treat proves an unwilling father figure and an unfulfilled adolescent, a man in the middle -- and, as Borrillo helps us understand, very much in the making -- who can't quite live up to manhood's responsibilities or make a clean break from youthful pleasures. That conflict comes to the forefront in Act Two, when Lawrence, decked out in sharp contrast to the slovenly appearance he assumes in Act One, ably reveals that Treat's limitations are primarily of his own creation.

The two-hour play moves along at a comfortable clip, propelled by sight gags and comic bits that arise naturally from the dialogue. And director Tabb takes care to evince truthful relationships between the characters. At times, though, the production seems shaped more by the mechanics of mystery than by the artfulness of style. Several pivotal episodes, for instance, are "heightened" by abrupt, distracting light shifts that are evidently meant to emphasize particular changes in emotion. However, these tonal shifts would be better communicated through the actors' interactions, which at present lack the sort of Pinteresque menace that the script seems to call for.

Minor worries aside, though, chilling truths and comic reversals eventually emerge, and one is left with an appreciation for both the performers' artistry and the story's enduring appeal -- qualities that made Orphans popular theatrical fare in the first place.

 
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