Lyle Kessler’s most famous play received critical praise from the off when it premiered in 1983. A 2013 Broadway revival starring Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster, and Alec Baldwin received two Tony nominations (though the programme says it was a winner). And while Dilated Theatre’s production doesn’t look like it has those kind of legs, it does more than enough to ensure that it isn’t trying to step out from anyone’s shadow either.
Orphans is a punchy script, always able to inject black humour, and never missing the mark. We’re introduced first to Philip (Chris Pybus), who scrambles around the apartment set hiding idly strewn books, a ladies shoe, and then himself before his brother Treat (Alexander Neal) enters. They must be in their thirties, but have lived here alone since their father abandoned them and their mother died in early childhood. Treat has assumed the parental role and has learned to lead with the buckle end of his belt. During the day he performs street muggings at knifepoint – their only source of income.
One night, Treat brings home an older man, Harold (Mitchell Mullen), whom he found drunk and alone in a bar downtown. His suit, Treat notes, is made of silk; his briefcase is full of valuable financial bonds. An impromptu amateur kidnapping is hastily staged and just as quickly botched. But instead of running, Harold makes Treat an offer of employment.
Within Orphans there is something very interesting being said about control. Treat has a clear oppressive hold over his infantile brother, removing any weapon he might use to seek freedom. Treat flies at Philip when he finds words underlined in the newspaper as Philip is forbidden to read. Nor is he allowed to leave the house – in case of allergic reactions, Treat tells him.
Kessler looks to be adding layers to the theme after Harold’s kidnap. He can open up new avenues for Treat – material wealth, amongst other things. Though Harold says himself that it’s Treat’s uncontrollably violent attitude that makes him right for the job, his offer requires that the younger man paradoxically submit himself entirely. Treat must show total discipline and do exactly as he is told if he is to be trusted with one of Harold’s ‘assignments’. It requires Neal to wear a Janus mask of berserk brutishness and child-like reliance.
It is at this point that essential faults in the acting prevent the production from carrying the full weight of its subject matter. Neal, also Dilated Theatre’s Artistic Director, just doesn’t convince. There is a distracting touch of melodrama to his movement, and his accent noticeably and consistently off. Treat’s inner struggle between playing son and father requires a conflicting performance of equal parts unmarried ferocity and childish vulnerability. But in moments of violence there is a distancing restraint to Treat out of kilter with the role. When he chases Philip around the table, it looks like he’s following choreography; there’s no intent in him to win the chase. This flimsiness leaves his emotional outpour in the play’s final scene feeling disingenuine and unjustified.
Pybus and Mullen on the other hand are sturdy pillars. Philip, for example, a part with a lot of emotional scope, is observed with nuanced mannerisms throughout. Pybus embodies this mentally-stunted man with excitable eagerness for all of life’s trinkets. Mullen’s presence onstage is filling and extremely physical throughout. His mysterious operations never come over as Del Boy dodgy dealings. He is precise, well-grounded in idolatry for Capitalism, and after a measure of Bourbon, somehow winningly inflected with the ghost of Liberace.
Both of these performances deserve to be seen and celebrated for fine stage work. Kessler’s script itself proves capable of a transatlantic transposition and of note for an enjoyably tangled relationship triangle. But such an evenly balanced three-hander doesn’t allow a company to hide many, if any, cracks.
Orphans plays at Southwark Playhouse until 5 March. See their website for more tickets and more information. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/orphans
Photo: Richard Davenport