It is hard to believe that it has been nearly 15 years since Lyle Kessler's ferociously eloquent Orphans was first produced in New York. The play has aged not a second in the intervening years; if anything, it is more disturbing, poignant, and thought-provoking than it was in 1985. And in the explosively intelligent production it has been given by None of the Above Theatre Company, it ranks among the best New York City currently has to offer.
Lyle Kessler's drama follows the plight of two brothers: the emotionally volatile Treat and the sweetly naive Phillip, who were orphaned at an early age. Living hand to mouth in Philadelphia (the city of "brotherly love"), Treat supports them both by thieving on a daily basis. This tentative existence is interrupted by Harold, a middle-aged man whose sudden appearance propels the three men into a journey of self-discovery that irrevocably twists the status quo. There are no major revelations here, no coup de théâtre resolutions at the 11th hour, no obvious villains or heroes. And yet, with an insidiously pervasive tension, Kessler's parable retains a strangely ambiguous clarity that slowly but surely sneaks in powerful emotional wallops with gentle, but nevertheless traumatic, force.
Everything in Brett Sullivan Santry's beautifully engrossing production worked - his touch was light, but telling; nothing was allowed to get in the way as the narrative built steadily to its quietly shattering climax with a sharply focused assurance. Tom Lens's set, Stephanie Santry's costumes, and Barbara McGlamary's lighting and sound were detailed yet austere in their design, as befit the dreary lives of Kessler's spiritually bereft characters, and all of the elements were allied to one single unerring vision, once again proving that exciting theatre that engages the mind and heart need not be confined to a few square blocks in the heart of the new Disneyworld.
As a group, the three-member cast offered some of the finest ensemble acting in recent memory, playing off each other with the finesse of the truly gifted; individually each actor performed as if he had been given the role of a lifetime and knew it. As Treat, David Belisle weighed in with a finely wrought portrayal, capturing every nuance of the unrelenting struggle between Treat's macho, self-sufficient exterior and the needy, frightened little boy trapped inside - an exquisitely tense balancing act without one false move. Bill Bartlett, at once warm and chilling, brought a suave ambiguity to the enigmatic Harold, an interpretation that was right on target. Justin Lewis, an irresistibly soulful presence, was simply brilliant as Phillip, negotiating every twist and turn of his difficult role with an amazing physicality and smartly underplayed naivete.
Reaching and sustaining a level of excellence that was outstanding
by any measure, this production of Orphans bolted across
that line in the sand that separates the men from the boys with
the edgy distinction of a genuine pro. Kudos to all.
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita