A big jar of Hellman's mayonnaise is the most obvious stage prop before the start of Orphans, Lyle Kessler's dark 1983 comedy. The mayonnaise is a running gag; one of the characters exults in dipping his paws into the stuff and licking it from his fingers. But the presence of the mayonnaise is symbolic of something bigger: America itself.
Orphans is perhaps most American in the Panavision dreams of its small-time hoods and there's something equally American about mayonnaise, the viscous goo concocted by a French chef and transformed into an everyday American condiment made from eggs, oil and only God knows what else, a vehicle for saturated fat that tastes like . . . nothing. Like so much else American, it's really, really bad for you.
America is at the heart of this intensely fascinating play, which is receiving an equally intense and fascinating production at the International City Theatre. The neighborhoods mentioned in the play belong to old, battered cities that—particularly in 1983—didn't seem as if they would ever be anything but old and battered and somehow quintessentially American: Chicago's south side, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia. Like other great figures in American literature, the three characters in this play are striving to Make It, either by cashing in big on the stock market, secretly educating themselves, or making up for an orphaned past by becoming a surrogate caregiver. That desperate attempt to reinvent the self might be the most obvious Americanism of all.
Treat (the ferociously talented Joshua Hutchinson) is a street-level tough with a wide mean streak. He lives with his younger brother Philip (an equally talented Pedro Balmaceda) in a cluttered home in a deteriorating Philadelphia neighborhood. Philip is a shut-in, touched in the head and apparently allergic to the outside world. He spends his time watching old movies, imagining Errol Flynn is lurking upstairs, and hiding in the closet with his dead mother's coats. While Treat obviously gets off on petty crime, he just as clearly relishes taking care of the harmless, clueless Philip.
Into this unhealthy balance of fear, domination and genuine sibling affection enters Harold (a wry, dead-on Barry Lynch). A middle-aged businessman traveling through town, Harold meets Treat in a bar and accepts an invitation home for a nightcap. But Treat is more interested in the contents of Harold's briefcase than a fireside chat.
Harold is a big, roaring Irishman, pie-eyed and muttering about a pathological gang of Hollywood screen urchins called the Dead End Kids when he's not describing his own miserable youth in an orphanage. Harold finally passes out, a troubled unconsciousness punctuated by pathetic cries of "Mommy!" Treat goes through his briefcase, finds a stack of stocks and bonds, and thinks he has kidnapped a wealthy industrialist whose picture will be on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in days.
When Harold awakens the next morning, he's tied to a chair with a gag in his mouth. But nothing is what it seems. Harold is actually some kind of organized-crime figure dealing in black-market securities. And instead of being angry or scared when he comes to, he slips free of his bonds, gives Philip an encouraging squeeze on his shoulders and offers both brothers jobs working for him.
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It's a war of wills that, at the top of the second act, Harold seems to have won convincingly. It's two weeks later, and Harold has transformed the hovel into a home, sanitized and redecorated. Treat's in a sharp Pierre Cardin suit, Philip's in a sleeveless sweater, and Harold's in the kitchen making corned beef and cabbage for his newly adopted family, offering healthy squeezes of encouragement and educating Treat in the American virtues of profit motive and moderation.
For its menacing, slightly surreal tone, there's nothing so similar to this weirdly American play as the work of that most English of playwrights, Harold Pinter. But unlike Pinter, who rarely lets the audience into the inner lives of his characters in anything but the most highly stylized way, Orphans is suffused with emotion of the chest-pounding, tear-flowing kind. But under the crisp direction of Elina deSantos, the emotions never get in the way of the taut, compelling action. Much of the credit is due his terrific cast. It's true ensemble acting, with all three actors contributing to a sometimes stunning whole. They're as perfectly balanced onstage as the characters are on the page: the honey-tongued Harold, with a trace of acid to his wit; the confused, excitable Treat with a temper he can't control; the achingly lonely Philip. All three actors wring maximum humor from their roles—no easy assignment in a play so prone to bursts of violence. That makes Orphans one of those rare experiences in which the shifts between drama and comedy seem effortless, allowing the viewer to revel in both.
The cast is so committed in Orphans that it succeeds in making deSantos' one questionable move work. In the script, Philip is definitely slow, perhaps even slightly retarded. But he begins this play almost demented, leaping across the stage in an opening scene not in the play, as he enacts a death scene from a TV movie. It's very funny because Balmaceda is so funny, but there's a lot more complexity, mystery and intelligence to Philip. The fact that the actor and this play are able to rise above what could have been a deadly mistake in terms of setting the play's tone is indicative of just how good they—and it—are.
Orphans at International City Theatre at Long Beach City College, Clark St. & Harvey Way, Long Beach, (562) 938-4128. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 5. $22.