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Steppenwolf presents Orphans

by Frank Rich

In recent seasons, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company has introduced New Yorkers to a sizzling, idiosyncratic performance style as brawny, all-American and blunt as the windy city that spawned it. Steppenwolf's specialty is not the development of new plays, but the galvanic staging of existing ones - as exemplified by its productions of "True West" and "Balm in Gilead." To that impressive pair can now be added "Orphans," the company's newest offering. It is riveting to watch this evening's three stunning actors - Kevin Anderson, Terry Kinney and John Mahoney - rip themselves apart with a raw ferocity that is Steppenwolf's theatrical answer to the esthetics of rock and roll. "Orphans" is theater for the senses and emotions, not the mind. The play itself, by Lyle Kessler, is best regarded as a taut trampoline for its levitating performers. What Mr. Kessler has devised is a pastiche - a hybrid of the Sam Shepard of "True West" and the Harold Pinter of "The Caretaker." While it's a shrewd pastiche that gains steadily in passion and tension, it won't stand up to any detailed exegesis. Examine "Orphans" too carefully, and one is less likely to learn about the savage and solitary nature of man (which is, I fear, the theme) than to uncover synthetically recreated gestures from other plays. But there's little time for such close scrutiny while "Orphans" unfolds. The director, Gary Sinise (who also staged and co-starred in "True West"), grabs us from his first image - that of Mr. Anderson curled up on a window ledge, blowing bubbles in an icy blue light. Typically, the eerie calm of that tableau ends abruptly. When Mr. Kinney arrives, Mr. Anderson leaps up, as if shot out of a cannon, and gyrates around a barren, darkened living room with the kinetic energy of a child playing a life-or-death game of hide and seek. The two actors are cast as brothers who share a North Philadelphia home as rubbish-strewn as that of the fraternal slobs of "True West." The older brother, Treat (Mr. Kinney), is a petty thief who has looked after the younger Phillip (Mr. Anderson) since childhood. Treat spends his days holding up victims at switchblade-point downtown, and he has connived to imprison his sibling at home. An overgrown wild child in torn sweat clothes, the innocent Phillip cannot read and does not know the identity of common objects like loafers and maps. His worldly experience is limited to television viewing; even his diet (exclusively Star Kist tuna and Hellman's mayonnaise) is dictated by the brand names hawked on the tube. "Orphans" gains a plot with the arrival of a mysterious older character - a well-spoken, natty, silver-haired Chicago mobster named Harold (Mr. Mahoney). Like his hosts, this intruder is also an orphan - but he wouldn't mind being a civilizing father figure to young men he likens romantically to Hollywood's "dead end kids." In Pinter fashion, Harold sets off a chain-reaction of role-reversals and power struggles that lead all three men to find the familial connections that their literally and metaphorically orphaned existences have always denied them. Flecked with Biblical allegory, bondage motifs, enigmatic symbols and malevolent allusions to "the free enterprise system," "Orphans" is part absurdist black comedy and part metaphysical melodrama. Mr. Sinise transforms it into a creepy, hermetically sealed environment where every weird event seems realer than real. The men trapped within this spooky world beat their heads against its walls. Rather than walk down the stairs, the actors fall down them; they don't cross the room, but crash violently around it, sometimes slamming face-first into shut doors. Meanwhile, the spectral lighting (by the set designer, Kevin Rigdon) and edgy jazz score (by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays) heighten the rippling undercurrents of incipient apocalypse. The showiest of the roles belongs to Mr. Anderson, who may well create the stir John Malkovich did in "True West." Staring at life only through windows, Phillip expertly mimics everyone he sees or hears about - a fast-talking game-show announcer, a strolling woman and her pet, and, most amazingly for a slight white actor, a heavyset black man. But Mr. Anderson always refracts these comic contortionist turns through Phillip's own feral identity. Looking not unlike a forlorn mongrel puppy, the actor creates a sweet, lost naif desperately searching for a parental shoulder to nestle against. Mr. Kinney, who directed Steppenwolf's "And a Nightingale Sang" and appeared memorably in "Balm in Gilead," counterpunches with his volatile, brutal Treat; he not only smacks his kid brother but at one point even beats himself up (and to a pulp). But the character is witty in his offhandedly vicious way ("I tried to work in a department store once and burned it down"), and he's not merely a teeth-baring wolf. When at last forced to confront his own wounds instead of wounding others, Mr. Kinney expectorates the repressed terrors of his childhood in primordial sobs far more bloodcurdling than the actual bloodletting of the play's denouement. No less commanding is Mr. Mahoney, whose dry, insinuatingly nasty performance as the cooler, middle-aged visitor makes one hunger to see him tackle Pinter and Mamet. He brings an unsettling, sepulcral tone to his repeated mythological reveries (part Horatio Alger, part Dreiser) about the romance of his Chicago-orphanage upbringing. When rendered comatose by bourbon, he becomes a strangely pitiable figure, crying out for his unknown mommy in a wheezy, muffled bleat of longing. Mr. Mahoney also has several lines expressing Harold's macabre fascination with Harry Houdini - an interest he coincidentally shares with Penn and Teller, the mischievous entertainers situated downstairs from "Orphans" at the small, double-decker Westside Arts Theater. It may take Houdini himself to cram in all the starved theatergoers who will want to see these neighboring shows - both of which bring startling high-wire theatrical stuntmanship to this season of mostly low blows. In Full Cry ORPHANS, by Lyle Kessler; directed by Gary Sinise; music by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays; set and lighting by Kevin Rigdon; sound by Mr. Sinise; sound supervising, Chuck London Media/Stewart Werner; costumes by Cookie Gluck; property designer, Lori S. Sugar; stage manager and assistant lighting designer, Douglas Bryan Bean. The Steppenwolf Theater production presented by Wolf Gang Productions, Joan Cullman, Dasha Epstein and The Steppenwolf Theater Company. At the Westside Arts Theater, 407 West 43d Street. PhillipKevin Anderson TreatTerry Kinney HaroldJohn Mahoney