Oh, Brother! 

Orphans is My Fair Lady acted out in some parallel universe

Two siblings, one tough and protective, the other childlike and reclusive, are locked in a mutually satisfying if emotionally stilted pas de deux. While not as old a scenario as someone-goes-on-a-journey or a-stranger-comes-to-town, it is still a dramatic setup with a long and rich history. The difference in Lyle Kessler's Orphans, now in its West Coast premiere at the Speakeasy Theatre, is that the older sibling is really, really nasty. So when the requisite stranger comes to town (modern-day Philly, in this case) to stir things up, the older sibling does change -- from nasty to still-nasty -- and the younger changes as well, but how much those changes will matter in the long run remains unclear.

Treat and Phillip are grown brothers, orphaned at a young age, trapped together in a shabby house and a marginal life. But, perversely, it suits them: Treat supports the household through petty thievery, going out every day to mug passersby while Phillip stays indoors, mortally afraid of having an allergic reaction to the outside world, secretly trying to teach himself to read. Into this cloistered world of hidden books, tuna fish sandwiches, and volatile tempers tumbles the mysterious stranger Harold, victim (or is he?) of Treat's clumsy abduction. With Harold in the house egging them on, the fragile arrangement between the brothers starts to unravel as they try to express their potential -- which may eventually drive them apart.

The character Phillip is so basically sweet and trusting that it's like kicking a puppy to criticize the actor playing him, but in the performance I saw, Bruce Kaplan emphasized physicality at the expense of nuance. Kaplan's performance was very self-conscious -- a man acting like a man acting like a child. Admittedly, it's a tough role -- Phillip is unable to understand jokes, read maps, or tie his own shoes before Harold comes along to bolster his self-confidence -- but that doesn't mean it can't be performed with subtlety. What's interesting is Phillip's relationship to Treat, who is strongly opposed to his brother's understanding anything that happens outside the house. If Phillip becomes more savvy about the world, he could very well leave Treat alone. That Treat needs Phillip (although he would never say so) as much as or more than Phillip needs Treat, becomes increasingly obvious as the story unwinds.

As cringe-inducing as Treat's behavior is -- he bullies and beats his brother, insists that Phillip get rid of beloved objects, and resists Phillip's attempts to educate himself -- he really believes that he's doing the right thing. So what if he threatens his brother? He's acting from love. Who else is going to take care of the useless kid? So what if he wants to control everything? He knows what's what, and he's nobody's fool. So he takes things that don't belong to him? It's the least this shitty world owes him. Everybody owes Treat -- his runaway father, his dead mother, the rich drunk with the tempting briefcase that he meets in a bar and brings home to rob at leisure. Treat's motivations are very clear, and vividly embodied (if occasionally overplayed) by Raul Rubio, who does a lot to capture the aura of a gun about to go off.

Harold's intentions are less clear. While Fred Barson inhabits the role well -- he's smooth, charismatic, and powerful -- it's questionable that his character chooses to stay with the brothers after Treat's failed kidnapping. The text is pretty obvious on this point -- as an orphan himself, Harold feels an affinity with the boys ("Are you a Dead-End Kid?" he asks Treat repeatedly, invoking an old comedy about plucky ragamuffins) and a fatherly affection for them (especially Phillip) in their struggles. He wants to put Treat's violence to good use, by turning him into a bodyguard. Also, he needs a place to lie low, a place where nobody will look for him. But why, on a gut level, does he stay with these guys in their ramshackle house, cooking bouillabaisse and teaching Treat how to control himself? There's a brief intimation that he might be the runaway father, but it never goes anywhere. If anything, it seems he's performing a scientific experiment, with the passion of a man crossbreeding fruit flies. Barson does a good job acting while tied up, and the scene that unfolds after he frees himself does a lot to reveal his character -- levelheaded, self-contained, examining his options, and figuring out how to turn the situation to his advantage. But he's saddled with the one role of the three that doesn't have a whole lot of growth built in, and it shows.

That said, the acting overall is fairly truthful, and there are some delicately handled moments: Treat holding a rejected jar of mayonnaise; Harold laying his arm over Phillip's shoulders as they head out for a walk; Phillip talking about the people who walk by outside his window. There's a lot of potential here -- if the energy levels of the three actors could be brought more in line, the overall shape of the performance would improve markedly.

Orphans' strength as a play lies in the questions it asks, many of which are answered offstage. For example, there's the transformation of the brothers, as if My Fair Lady was being acted out in some parallel moral universe: Instead of turning a guttersnipe into a lady, Harold is trying to turn Phillip into a man who can stand on his own two feet, while simultaneously refining Treat into a sleeker, better-controlled criminal. The most intriguing question of the first act -- how will Harold pull off socializing Treat -- is answered between the first and second acts. It's the first of many such questions: After Harold is gone, how will the relationship between the brothers change? Will things be better now that Phillip has some self-sufficiency, or worse? Will Treat abuse him as much? What are the probable consequences of Treat's emotional reaction to Harold's departure?

The staging is adequate, and occasionally inspired. The spare set is well-designed -- distressed and monochromatic, it neatly evokes despair and claustrophobia. I didn't care for the jazzy score -- originally composed for Gary Sinise's New York production by Pat Metheny -- as it didn't connect well to the play. The costuming is mostly on point, though: Treat is wearing a bright red shirt the first time we see him, standing out like a flame before the beiges, tans, and grays of the life he shares with his brother, the washed-out set and the sorry dresses drooping in an exposed closet, souvenirs of their deceased mother. It's a great costuming choice, making Treat almost glow with menace and rage. In the second act when he appears spiffed up in a new suit, it seems that the rage is contained -- barely -- by the dark threads. Phillip undergoes a similar transition, from sloppy sweats to neatly combed hair and a prized pair of yellow loafers.

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