(July 17, 2007)

The Boys Aren’t All Right

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Toward the end of the first act of "Orphans" - Lyle Kessler's taut play getting a powerhouse revival at Penguin Rep in Stony Point -Treat shrieks "Who's in control here?"

Treat, the big brother to the homebound Philip, is used to calling all the shots.

He's the provider, paying the rent, albeit with stolen money.

He's the protector, watching over his fragile brother - by keeping him a virtual prisoner in their North Philadelphia row house.

He's the one who brings home Starkist tuna and Hellmann's mayonnaise, Philip's favorites. No matter that they're purchased with money from a man "I had to cut in Fairmount Park."

Treat does the wrong things for the right reasons.

Penguin Rep first presented "Orphans," a gritty study in power, loneliness and fear, 20 years ago. Joe Brancato directs it again here, in a production that includes a top-notch cast and a rare-for-Penguin appearance - an actual curtain.

When that curtain rises, Dustin O'Neill's appropriately grimy set draws applause.

The production values are in keeping with Penguin's 30-year tradition as an incubator for new and important work.

Joanne Haas' costumes, Jeff Croiter's lights and Jill BC DuBoff's sound design add to the mood - as does the excellent choice of incidental music: Tom Waits. This is a Tom Waits kind of play.

And Treat, played by the exceptional P.J. Sosko, is a Tom Waits kind of character.

Treat is a Kilauea in a stocking cap, a ball of rage able to keep his anger in check for just so long before he erupts. If Orange & Rockland Utilities faces energy shortages this summer, it could easily power the village of Stony Point on Treat's rage. We're talking megawatts of turbine-turning, vein-popping anger.

Sosko's polar opposite is John Magaro as Philip, a docile young man of simple faith who finds comfort hiding in the closet among his dead mother's old coats.

"I like it in there. It's warm," he says.

While Philip may not be all there, he's only been here - in this home - for much of his life. He never ventures out, fearing the world he sees only from his window, or through the jaded eyes of his big brother. When they play tag in the living room, Philip plays by the rules. Treat cheats.

Magaro's Philip is sweet, straightforward and believable, a perfect counterpoint to Sosko's volcanic bundle of nerves.

When Treat puts his latest moneymaking scheme into action, it's the beginning of the end of his control - and of Philip's isolation.

The change comes courtesy of Michael Cullen as Harold, a drunken businessman Treat brings home.

He had to bring him home, Treat tells Philip: "Somebody could have mugged him."

"Somebody could have kidnapped him," Philip agrees.

We can almost sense the room getting lighter as Philip's offhanded comment becomes a light-bulb moment, a plan of action for Treat. "Kidnapping!" he seems to be thinking. "Why didn't I think of that?"

Before long, Harold has slept off his drunk and turns out to be more than the boys bargained for.

As in any good dramatic triangle, there are hands and upper hands, shifting loyalties and allegiances.

The more Harold insinuates himself into the situation - performing a makeover on their run-down home, supplanting Starkist with bouillabaisse - the less control Treat has, and the more Philip emerges from his cocoon.

Cullen is a stage veteran familiar to Penguin Rep audiences from performances in "One Shot, One Kill" and "The Drawer Boy," among others. He won an Obie Award for "Bug" and a Drama Desk for his work in the ensemble of "Cobb."

Somehow, Cullen is able to combine an ease and a sense of menace in Harold, a character whose character is unknown.

When we meet him, he could be just a guy who has had a few too many. The more we learn about him, the less we seem to know.

He's well dressed, but scratch him and the street tough - "the motherless newsboy on the South side of Chicago" - comes through.

Why doesn't he run when he's untied? What kind of business is he in? Why can't he go back to Chicago?

Harold, it turns out, is an orphan himself, a man who understands the power of an encouraging arm around his shoulder.

His impact on the boys is indelible, making over more than the house. He becomes mother and father to the boys, judging Treat and encouraging Philip.

But mothers and fathers leave orphans, and Harold's stay is not permanent.

Brancato builds Kessler's words into a final, riveting tableau: Orphans. Alone. Together.

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