My review of Orphans, on now at the Firehall Arts Centre, appears in this week's WestEnder.
By Andrea Warner
The Dead End Kids were originally a motley assortment of young toughies plucked from obscurity to play kids growing up on New York streets. They went on to find success in Hollywood, and represented the gritty hold-your-breath hopefulness of a generation devastated by the Depression and caught between World Wars.
Orphans plants its roots firmly in this lore: Treat and Philip are brothers who were orphaned as children, but continue to live together in a strangely cozy codependence. Treat has a hair-trigger temper and pays the rent through petty crime. Philip’s allergies keep him locked up inside, imagining a dream world where Errol Flynn is to blame for breaking any other number of Treat’s rules. Their relationship is complex: Treat, the eldest, fought to keep Philip from social services, and his over-protectiveness hasn’t waned. Rather, it’s a metaphorical hug that’s squeezing the life out of Philip’s body. When Treat brings home Harold, no one is prepared for the wedge it will drive between the brothers, forcing them both to grow up beyond their fragile existence.
It’s best not to dwell too much on Orphans’ story, and regard it instead as a springboard for three wonderful performances, nurtured by director Stephen Drover. Andrew McNee’s Treat is a whirlwind of bravado and anger, and it’s entirely to his credit that Treat never becomes a “bad guy” despite his actions. It’s fascinating to watch McNee convey the constant threat Treat feels every time Philip makes the slightest movement towards independence; even Philip teaching himself to read becomes a battle.
Michael Charrois plays Harold, the man who finally comes between the brothers. His quick-as-lightening turn from victim to victor is delightful, particularly as he attempts to bring Treat’s lawlessness into focus. He’s part tender father, part dangerous outsider and lends a certain funny creepiness to his perpetual offering of “encouragement.” Harold’s motivations seem to rest entirely on his fondness for “dead end kids,” as he calls Treat and Philip, but Charrois isn’t provided with enough material to make Harold anything more than a convenient catalyst to the story.
Last but not least, Michael Rinaldi steals the show (much the way he did in The Dissemblers) with his charming embodiment of Philip’s naïve curiousity. Rinaldi’s a gifted physical comedian who infuses Philip with a believable desire to challenge himself and the status quo (re: Treat.) Philip’s gentle attachment to a high-heeled shoe and his wild imagination are perfect fodder for Rinaldi’s brand of graceful boyishness, and Philip’s transformation into a man is heartening to watch.
The production values are simple and effective. A coffee table becomes it’s own stage as a platform for all three actors to alternately sit, lay, stand, or jump on. A television set’s soft grey glare provides the only light on Treat’s sad face as he realizes Philip is finally stretching his wings.
Ultimately, Orphans shortcomings lie in the hands of playwright Lyle Kessler. The story arc feels rushed, the second half lulls in two of its four scenes, and a throw-away line hints at a major plot point but instead becomes a nagging question that goes unanswered. The script’s biggest crime, though, is the tidy bow it wraps around Treat’s metamorphoses: it comes way too quickly, and shortchanges everyone involved.
Yet, the acting makes this a show worth seeing; it’s owed entirely to the talented cast that Orphans finds a home inside its audience at all.