It's not easy to be funny when you're choking on your necktie. It's not easy to project ephemeral things such as character, motivation, and soul when you're bound, gagged, and tied to a chair. Travis Reiff does that and more as Harold, a criminal of unspecified type and soon-to-be father figure to orphans Treat and Philip.
You can tell almost everything about Reiff's character from the way he wiggles around in that chair — glancing about the room, seeing everything, making good-humored noises, and evincing less rancor at his captors than an honest, if calculating, interest in the strange turn his life has taken.
And how did it happen? He was drunk in a bar, apparently — whether he was actually drunk is a minor mystery that theatergoers can wonder about postshow — when he was taken home by Treat (David Sirois), a grown orphan and stick-up artist who, for whatever reason, allowed the man into his house. That house is shared with Treat's younger brother, Philip (Justin McClendon), a shut-in innocent with all the world-wariness of a manic 12-year-old. At some point, after Harold seems to pass out, Treat decides it might be worth looking in the man's briefcase. There he finds stocks — lots and lots of stocks worth lots and lots of money. So now Harold is tied to a chair, and the orphan brothers want to hold him for ransom.
It's an interesting situation, and most theaters would flub it, because this interesting situation is meant to segue into a yet more interesting and vastly more complicated one. Soon Harold is employing his captors, and his captors are slowly coming to think of him as a weird combination of father, mentor, and savior. This isn't P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. Though funny, it's not supposed to be a comedy. We're supposed to take this stuff at face value, be moved by it, be enamored of it — coast along on its weird eddies of human emotion and see where they take us. It's a delicate operation.
Overacting is a very real danger here. Consider: Treat and Philip are alone. Motherless. Fatherless. Ignorant of the ways of the world. Treat has hard-won street smarts and not much else, and you get the sense he'd be a sweet kid if life hadn't put him in such a wretched position. As it is, he tries hard to be hard. Meanwhile, Philip, the shut-in, is a naif with a heart of gold — allergic to everything, illiterate, liable to spend a day staring out the window, falling in love with the nicely dressed passersby, and in the evening recounting their visages to his brother, who listens gamely and tries to humor the boy while mulling over grimmer, more adult concerns.
The sheer preciousness of it all is an invitation to ham, but the brave actors of the Alliance Theatre Lab resist. They give Kessler's old script a loving treatment, as intimate as the tiny theater's warmly lit stage. There is very little bombast in this Orphans. There is, rather, a quiet sense of filial devotion struggling to assert itself beneath Treat's put-on violence. "It's amazing how people stop struggling once there's a little blood," notes Treat, sounding more than anything like a lost kid in need of a hug.
He will soon be offered one. Reiff's Harold steps into the orphans' home with such an inflated sense of paternalism he's more like a cartoon than a dad. Charmed rather than scared by Treat's swinging of a switchblade, Harold views the snarling young thug as a kind of puppy. Harold's presence in the house feels like a big, creepily misplaced embrace. His warm, booming voice is like an aural tongue bath.
So they form a kind of family. And just as Treat took the abuses of the world so his younger brother wouldn't have to, now Harold, Christ-like, will bear the abuses for them all.
That this is so moving has less to do with the tricky script than with bravura performances from all three leads, particularly from the young McClendon. His whole performance is a great, big hope engine. In the early scenes, he expresses such clear and unforced joy at the arrival of a new jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise — his favorite food, which he has slathered atop StarKist tuna sandwiches every day for years — that you can almost see how such niggling pleasures could sustain a life, could make it worth living. McClendon suffuses his character with such a wholesome sense of humanity that when he begins, at Harold's urging, to expect more from life, his growing experience of the world reaches the audience like the breaking of a long-awaited dawn. If you want to see something recklessly, gustily beautiful in a theater, see this.
If there is a problem with Orphans — and there's not, but I'm just tossing out a hypothetical — it's how very much the play's quasi-tragic ending hurts after Kessler, Acevedo, Reiff, et al. have spent the last hour cranking up your hopes and making you believe that, in their make-believe version of northern Philly, justice exists. It doesn't, though — not here. And given the sweetness and hope evinced in the Orphans' giddy first half, the omission feels almost sadistic. It's not, of course. It's just art. Maybe a happy ending would have been too easy — a betrayal of the big, gritty world being imagined on the stage. Nevertheless, I left dwelling less on the play's gloomy denouement than on all the bright and humor-filled moments that came before. They're really wonderful, some of them transcendent — and their memories are more sustaining than mayo and liable to keep longer.