Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theatre

You have to admire the Profiles Performance Ensemble. It takes guts for a raggedy little non-Equity theater to produce Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, a play still strongly associated with the Steppenwolf glory years of the early to mid-80s.

Not that this is the first time Profiles has barked at Steppenwolf’s heels. A year ago they took on Sam Shepard’s True West, the second play Steppenwolf took to New York (after Balm in Gilead) and the one that set John Malkovich firmly on the road to stardom. I didn’t see the Profiles production of True West–for one thing I’m not a big fan of Shepard, and for another I hadn’t been wild about the Profiles production immediately preceding True West: a flawed take on David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. But now that I’ve seen what this rough, energetic company can do with a play like Orphans, I wish I had.

Set in the present, in a shabby house in north Philadelphia, Kessler’s three-character play about two dysfunctional brothers–one’s a hood, the other’s afraid to leave the house–who are adopted by the smooth-talking gangster they’ve kidnapped is very much an actor’s play: Kessler’s thin, derivative story–more than a little reminiscent of another work about bickering codependent brothers, True West–desperately needs a strong cast just to give it the illusion of depth.

Happily, director Dan Torbica’s cast are up to the task. Though not of the stature of Terry Kinney, Kevin Anderson, or John Mahoney (who received raves in both the Chicago and New York productions), all three perform with such dedication and obvious love of their craft that they’re a joy to watch. Even when you see plot turns coming half a scene away, such as when the younger brother finally overcomes his brother’s bullying, the cast keeps the play engrossing.

Of the three, Dale Morris, as the kidnapped gangster turned father figure, seems to have the most control. In Morris’s hands, Harold is so cool, cultured, and charming that it makes perfect sense when he turns the tables on his captors. Yet throughout Morris’s performance we’re aware that beneath Harold’s well-manicured nails, his carefully modulated voice, and his indulgent, amused chuckle, there lurks a hood every bit as violent and angry as Treat, the hothead older brother.

Joe Jahraus displays similar depth as Treat, though he hasn’t quite mastered the art of getting angry without losing control of his performance. He also has a way to go before he attains the graceful ease with which Morris allows his character to unfold.

Darrell Christopher’s take on the housebound younger brother, Phillip, is more problematic. Though he’s likable throughout and, to his credit, remains utterly unlike the sugar-buzzed, hyperactive kid Kevin Anderson plays in the movie version of Orphans, Christopher nevertheless mars his performance (especially early in the play) by turning Phillip into the sort of spastic, loudmouth whiner Jerry Lewis made a career of playing. Thankfully, Christopher drops these annoying mannerisms about halfway through–soon after Phillip, with Harold’s help, transforms himself from a cringing neurotic into a well-dressed, fairly mature, and assertive young man.

These are quibbles, however. Warts and all, Torbica’s production is utterly absorbing.