`Orphans' turns out to be a family story

THEATER

Drama is an uneasy mix of Mamet and `Of Mice and Men'

December 11, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Theatergoers at Company 13 should feel right at home when they see the set for Orphans. That's because the thrift-store furniture on stage bears a remarkable similarity to the thrift-store sofas that serve as audience seating.

But if the set - designed by the show's director, W. M. Yarbrough III - looks comfortably broken-in (albeit strewn with debris), the play is considerably less comfortable, and not just because Lyle Kessler's script is intentionally disturbing. It's also uncomfortable because the text is an odd blend of pseudo-David Mamet and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. And, Yarbrough's sluggish staging does little to help matters.

The plot concerns a pair of brothers - a two-bit thief named Treat (somewhat reminiscent of Teach, one of the thieves in Mamet's American Buffalo) and his developmentally slow younger sibling, Phillip (reminiscent of Lenny in Of Mice and Men). Living on their own since their mother's death, the brothers have worked out a peculiar modus operandi in which Treat steals to support them, keeping Phillip confined to the house, under Treat's love-hate domination.

Then one night Treat lures a drunk, prosperous businessman home and decides to hold him for ransom. The twist in Kessler's play is that the businessman, Harold, turns out to be in an even shadier business than Treat (the nature of that business is one of many things left unexplained). More to the point, Harold quickly obtains the upper hand and begins running the brothers' lives - ostensibly out of a strong, but again, largely unexplained, selfless interest in their well-being.

Given the production's best performance by an assured J. Jeffrey Harrison, Harold is a deliberately enigmatic figure. But despite unanswered questions about his character's background and motivation, Harrison makes Harold's concern for these young men feel genuine, and his performance suggests that the play, though flawed, could serve as a powerful acting showcase.

The other two performances, however, do not take full advantage of this opportunity. The script makes repeated references to Treat's violent nature, and Reece Thornberry is clearly trying to act tough, but the thermostat on his sense of menace is never turned up high enough. And Bradley Burgess-Donaleski's Phillip, though endearing, eventually falls into the trap of overplaying his role for laughs.

In the end, in contrast to its title, Orphans is a play about the need for family - no matter how unconventional that family may be. Company 13's production makes that point, but it takes far too long to get there, and along the way, the characters - and two of the three performances - strain credibility.

Company 13 performs at the Top Floor, 5440 Harford Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 20. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 443-691-7040.

$77 million theater

There's more news on the theater-building front in Washington, where renovations to the Kennedy Center are continuing and where Arena Stage recently announced plans for new construction. The latest major player is the Shakespeare Theatre, which will build a $77 million, 800-seat theater on F Street, less than 100 yards from its current 7th Street venue.

Designed by A. J. (Jack) Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc. of Toronto, the new facility will be a flexible space, which can be configured into a proscenium, thrust, semi-arena or bare stage.

To be located on the first five-and-a-half floors of a yet-to-be-built office building at 620 F St., N.W., the theater will feature a three-story, projecting glass facade intended to replace any sense that the arts are "mysterious and intimidating" with "a welcoming transparency," according to Diamond.

Due to be completed in early 2007, the theater will be called the Sidney Harman Theatre, in honor of a Shakespeare Theatre trustee and philanthropist and his family, which contributed $15 million to the project. In addition, the District of Columbia has invested $20 million and the Shakespeare Theatre has raised another $7.5 million to date.

The Shakespeare Theatre will continue to operate its 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre along with the new facility, which will also serve as a center for music, dance and film and is expected to be a home away from home for such international companies as Great Britain's Theatre de Complicite and Spain's Compania Nacional de Danza.

Staged reading

Center Stage's First Look series of staged readings continues next week with Crippled Sisters, a play by Chicago-based actress and director Susan Nussbaum about five teens - four of whom are in wheelchairs - on the day of their high school graduation. Direction is by Center Stage associate artist and casting director Judy Dennis.

Show times are 8 p.m. Dec. 17 and 1 p.m. Dec. 18 in the Head Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students, seniors and Center Stage subscribers). For more information, call 410-332-0033.

Theater workshop

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