With Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, the Vex has mounted a sentimental production of a perverse play, and the evening lumbers under the weight of that fundamental contradiction. In some senses, the play’s potential couldn’t be greater: It originated at the epicenter of American theater in the 1980s — Chicago’s Steppenwolf ensemble — before transferring to New York with the red-hot Gary Sinise as director. At the time, the play’s structure (an all-male three-hander) and themes (alienation, ferocity, testosterone) made it an easy analogue to the work of such hairy-chested contemporaries as Pinter, Shepard, and Mamet.
Indeed, the fingerprints of such playwrights are all over this play, from the conversation-heavy plot (in which words are — or should be — as menacing as fists) to the dilapidated single-unit set (à la Pinter’s The Homecoming) to the enigmatic trio of protagonists. The story itself — which ain’t much — concerns the plight of two orphaned brothers inhabiting a ramshackle house in Philadelphia, the city (significantly) of brotherly love. The younger orphan, Phillip, passes his time as a socially stunted and agoraphobic movie queen (he literally spends his days in the closet); the elder orphan, Treat, treats local passersby to his switchblade, thereby eking out a meager, amoral living for the two orphans. (I intentionally repeat the theme of orphanage nearly as much as Kessler does. It gives you a taste of the evening.) Alas, the twain are sundered by the mysterious entrance of Harold, a mafioso gangster and also, as luck or blindingly obvious metaphor would have it, an orphan. Though originally held by Treat for ransom, Harold soon turns the tables on his captors, and the second act explores the bonds that develop between these three damaged and, um, familially challenged individuals.
Such a play, so clearly endowed with Artistic Gravity and the allegorical power of Orphanage, can only work if staged like Pinter and Shepard, and thus imbued with a nearly Twilight Zone sense of alterity; in that respect, it needs to be more Buried Child than Oliver! Moreover, the playwright sprinkles literary symbols with gleeful abandon, and the most heavy-handed of them — such as Phillip’s fetishization of red female shoes, emblematic of The Mother or perhaps The Whore — need to be carefully judged and staged if they are to be at all affecting, or even sensible. Instead, Ken Frazier’s syrupy direction brings out the worst in the text, highlighting the fact that these men are actual, and not merely symbolic, orphans. (Artistically, this has been a terrible idea for centuries: Dopey stories about orphans were already mocked in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance; and as Oscar Wilde observed, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”)
So: trapped in a production that has largely stripped the weirdness from a weird play, the hapless actors are left to inhabit characters that have been mostly turned to cardboard. Jim Mammarella fares best as the crook-with-a-heart-of-gold, a cross of Capone and Confucius, though there’s nothing particularly sinister or thuggish about his Harold; when he first gives a hug of encouragement to Phillip — and this is the sort of play that’s big on hugs — it’s simply that: a hug of encouragement. (Not a kiss, or hug, of death; not a desperate attempt at escape; and not even an expression of homoerotic attraction, which is more than possible since Treat has just picked up Harold in a bar. Like most things in this production, Harold’s hug is just a hug. Revel in its unambiguousness.) John Lively is never unhinged enough as the feral, violent Treat, which makes the educational arc of the second act less compelling. Kailyr Frazier brings a sweetness to the role of frightened, insufficiently socialized Phillip, but is hampered by the literalizing thrust of the overall interpretation.
The production works best when it shatters the shackles of such literalism, as during a play-within-a-play about a particularly tense bus ride: This metatheatrical turn emphasizes Phillip’s joy in morphing his humdrum reality into a fantastic world of swashbuckling adventure — even if that “adventure” is on mass transit. But otherwise, the evening remains firmly rooted in the world of melodrama, including some groan-inducing soliloquies straight out of Dickens. (Indeed, the entire production has made me reconsider the artistry and bravery of Annie.) I applaud the Vex’s decision to think outside the box in terms of programming, but shoe-horning Orphans into the mold of Neil Simon only softens the impact, I think, of these solitary, hard-knock lives.•