Kyle Kessler's Orphans can be an actor's dream: two boisterously funny hours that transform almost imperceptibly into heart-breaking tragedy. Each of the play's three roles offers to-die-for opportunities to stretch and exhibit an actor's artistic muscles. But in its theatrical potential lies the play's danger: the script is so good that it attracts actors and directors who expect the play itself to do the work of bringing the performance to life. When that happens, as in this Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production, the comedy falls flat and the play's ascent into tragedy becomes a submersion in hollow bathos and cloying sentimentalism.
Set in North Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, Orphans tells the tale of two orphaned brothers—Treat, a petty criminal and thug, and Phillip, his fragile and simpler younger sibling—and their transformative encounter with an older gangster, Harold. One night, Treat brings the drunken Harold home in hopes of kidnapping and holding him for ransom. But the prey turns out to be more cunning—and more sagacious—than his would-be captors ever imagined.
Director Jay Louden's timid production is full of sputtering activity and woefully short of meaningful dramatic action. This is a play that requires an almost constant flow of high-energy acting coupled with extreme emotional commitment. Louden's actors enervate rather than energize the script. Crucial moments in the play—such as the first time Treat touches Harold's hand or Phillip's decision to follow Harold outside the apartment—are passed over without a flicker of emotional response by the actors. As Treat, John Juré is a whining complainer rather than a bully, more annoying than threatening. James Cude's Phillip presents a generalized, sometimes charming goofiness rather than the innocence needed to create the play's sense of awe and wonder. Paul A. Castellano brings a touching warmth and gentleness to Harold but lacks the vitality necessary to drive the action and the wicked magnetism necessary to captivate the brothers. And the cobbled-together-looking set designed by Ellen King fails to provide a sense of place, time, class or character.
Orphans at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699 A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Sept. 25. $15-$17.