The set, a dingy living room with a piano, an ancient television, a battered recliner and rickety TV trays, and framed by a brick frieze representing the outside wall, seems designed for maximum obstruction. I don't know whether the two silver drainpipes running top to bottom are part of the building's structure (I don't remember them from previous performances) or a brainchild of the directors, but they do their bit to impede the view. And as if those weren't enough, three windows dangle from the ceiling between the audience and the stage. Not empty frames, either, but frames covered with some kind of transparent material. I spent the length of the play craning my neck. A touching moment occurred between two of the characters, and I couldn't see their faces. An actor would walk across the stage and disappear behind a drainpipe, or his form would become distorted as he passed a window. At one point, in what seemed a struggle to the death, two men wrestled on the ground. I heard grunts and choking sounds, but all I could see was a pair of waving feet.
Before the play had even begun, and through the opening minutes, which featured Judson Webb as Phillip sitting in the near dark and staring at the television, it all seemed so half-baked that I wondered if I really had to wait until intermission to leave, or if I could find a way to sneak out immediately. Then Webb stood up. He wandered over to the piano, mimed a grandiose response to an invisible audience and sat down on the bench. He thumped. He noodled. He twiddled and dinged and banged in a frenzied display of madness mingled with musicality. This might be worth watching after all, I thought. And I settled back into my seat.
Orphans is an interesting piece. It can be seen as realistic, or as a kind of fable, a grimmer, grittier version of those Hollywood movies in which an angel comes to earth to set everything to rights. Phillip and his brother, Treat, have been living together since the death of their father. Treat, a violent and volatile petty criminal, earns a living through thievery. He's threatening and abusive toward Phillip, maintaining control by convincing his brother that he's dumb and illiterate, and that if he ventures outside the apartment, his allergies will kill him. Phillip, who has a prodigious memory for products and brand names and who seems to be hiding books in the apartment and attempting to read them, is kept pacified with tuna sandwiches slathered with Hellman's mayonnaise.
One night Treat brings home a business-suited drunk, Harold, whom he intends to tie up and hold for ransom. But no one Treat calls appears interested in providing a ransom, and Harold -- a natty, enigmatic figure -- has ideas of his own. It seems he's a major underworld operator, and he wants to employ Treat in his business. But in this inside-out world, Harold also functions as a savior. He talks to the young men about his own childhood in an orphanage and the rough-tempered German cook whose heaping plates of food saved his life. With his nostalgia for corned beef and cabbage, his insistence that Phillip and Treat are Dead End Kids and his frequent use of the word "son," he often sounds like a character from an old movie. He makes elegiac references to "Orphans dying, orphans spitting blood...orphans always hungry...frightened orphans crying out in the middle of the night."
Harold attempts to civilize Treat -- if only in the service of crime -- and in response, Treat grovels and threatens like a cornered dog. He offers understanding and encouragement to Phillip. He wanders through the apartment singing, "If I had the wings of an angel." In short, what we're seeing is clearly a tale about redemption, yet author Lyle Kessler avoids sentimentality, and the play is often oddly touching.
The performances of the three principals are absolutely pitch-perfect. Webb gives Phillip just the right mix of lunacy, vulnerability and defensiveness. Jax Russell is angry and bewildered as Treat, and Steve Grad's authoritative Harold wields his alternating weapons of kindliness and control like a master. Between them, the actors create a scintillating performance. I'd love to see it better staged.