ORPHANS, Old Fitz Theatre, 14 April-9 May 2015. Photography by Marnya Rothe: above Andrew Henry, Danny Adcock and Aaron Glenane; right: Andrew Henry.
In under six months Red Line Productions has injected new life and credibility into the Old Fitz as a centre of independent theatre excellence – with the emphasis on “excellence”. This continues with the choice of Lyle Kessler’s 1983 play about brothers Treat (Andrew Henry) and Phillip (Aaron Glenane) and the broken-down lives they lead in a broken-down terrace house in Philadelphia.
This is the rough end of an elegant city that long ago fell on hard times and its omnipresence in the playwright’s psyche is reflected in the way it subtly impinges on the two young men. Abandoned as children by their father and then orphaned by their mother’s death, Treat “works” as a petty thief to provide for his younger brother. From their basement dwelling they have managed to stay beneath the welfare radar to reach something resembling adulthood, although their reality is as skewed as if they were still kids playing at being grown up.
Phillip cannot leave the apartment for fear of the toxic air Treat says will assail him if he does. He is a twitchy nervous wreck who survives on cans of SeaKist tuna with Hellmann’s Mayo and watches re-runs of The Price Is Right when not curled up in the comforting darkness of his mother’s clothes closet.
So far so marginally peculiar. Then Treat comes home with Harold (Danny Adcock), a small time gangster from Chicago who is as predatory as Treat but slightly better at disguising it. In the urban netherworld they individually inhabit the concepts of family and comfort have become distorted by sentimentality and neediness. Treat and Phillip need a father, Harold needs them to represent the long gone sweetness of Saturday movie matinees and the Dead End Kids – cute but harmless street urchins and a far cry from present day reality.
These days we would say Treat has issues with anger management, in 1983 the phrase and the psychopathology had yet to be codified. Nevertheless, as powerfully portrayed by Andrew Henry, the young man’s desperately intense, smouldering and erratic behaviour is simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying and instantly recognisable. No wonder his younger brother is a snivelling mess most of the time, but there is something else there too.
Phillip’s fears are underpinned by an innocent cunning that hints at survival instincts which could just see him through where Treat might go under. Will they each survive the machinations of the other? Will Treat’s ham-fisted attempt to kidnap and ransom Harold go beyond farce or descend into murder and disaster? And what on earth does Treat think he might be able to do with the briefcase full of stocks and bond papers that Harold carried?
Kessler’s play is partly black burlesque and part psychological thriller and urban horror tale. Directed by Anthony Gooley, both Andrew Henry and Aaron Glenane inhabit the skins and minds of their characters with conviction and finesse. The balance, on opening night at least, was upset by a cartoon-like approach by Danny Adcock as the Chicago crim: caricature takes Harold over the edge into parody, which is unfortunate.
And where Henry and Glennane are secure and plausible in their American accents (dialect coach Nick Curnow), Adcock veers wildly between Brooklyn-Russian, Newtown-Enmore and just distractingly incomprehensible. If, as is often said – here as much as anywhere else – that getting the casting right is half the battle, it’s a pity that William Zappa was sitting in the audience rather than being on the stage in this otherwise compelling production.
Also notable is the set design by Anna Gardiner (“original spatial concept by Lisa Mimmocchi”) of a dingy and decaying basement living room in which you can just about smell the old socks, cheap food and cheap whiskey. It’s lit – gloomily and authentically – by Matt Cox; and the sound design by David Stalley occasionally reminds that there is a city of relatively normal people beyond the grubby window.
After great success on its initial outings in Los Angeles, then for Steppenwolf and in London (and a movie version), Orphans was restaged on Broadway in 2013 with a starry cast (Alec Baldwin and notoriously not Shia LaBeouf) and proved its worth as a play deserving of a fresh approach. This production is blessed with two fabulous performances from Andrew Henry and Aaron Glenane and they make a visit to the Old Fitz in the next month something to savour.