ORPHANS (1983)
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Music Composed by J.A.C. Redford

CAST (in order of appearance)
PAUL LIEBER as "Treat"
LANE SMITH as "Harold"

SETTING: North Philadelphia.  Early Spring.  The Present.

L-R: Paul Lieber, Joe Pantoliano & Lane Smith

Click on the photo to see it larger


By Lawrence Christon

Director John Lehne, whose last effort was the thoughtfully managed Clifford Odets play "Paradise Lost" at the Little Victory Theater, is back with a new work at the Matrix Theater called "Orphans," which opens next Sunday. The play is by actor-playwright Lyle Kessler, who has been a member of Lehne's acting class.

"It's a modern fable, a dark comedy about one of the most basic of human needs—love—and the affection and recognition that entails," Lehne said. "It's about two orphaned brothers named Treat and Phillip. Both were left at an early age, and the older has to assume the role of parent for the younger without having any guidelines, therefore he gets into thieving and street hustling.

"Phillip, the younger, never leaves the house. At first his whole idea of the world is gained through television and what he sees outside his window. But he's finding ways out by underlining words in books and looking up their meanings.

"I find it a lovely, touching play. And it deals with heroic struggle, which I identify with. And it plays."

Who could ask for anything more? Paul Lieber and Joe Pantoliano play the brothers, and Lane Smith plays a wealthy businessman drawn into their lives in spite of himself.


DRAMA-LOGUE, Sept. 1-7, 1983
by Polly Warfield

Who was that masked man? We may well wonder as the mysterious, dedicated benefactor of "Dead End Kids" and orphans swings out the door with only his briefcase in his hand to disappear forever down a nondescript North Philadelphia street. For Harold is the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Superman, even maybe (dare we say it?) a surrogate of Jesus Christ. The lives he touches and redeems are forever altered. It is Harold, played to stunning perfection by Lane Smith, who lifts Lyle Kessler's play into joyousness and makes it the gem it is.

The play is not to be taken totally realistically despite its modern idiom; it is part fantasy, fable, old-fashioned fairytale. Its sentiment is Gene Stratton Porter and Horatio Alger Jr. updated. It is cracking good entertainment, comedy and suspense. It is also metaphysical and allegorical. It's easy enough to point out flaws of contrivance and credibility, such as where did sequestered Phillip (shades of Cinderella) get that stiletto-heeled red satin slipper he so cherishes? Since he and delinquent elder brother Treat are orphans of the storm, who took care of this presumably helpless kid when Treat was in detention hall? What use could a youth apparently so retarded make of a contraband, concealed Webster's Collegiate and what interest would he have in multi-syllable words? And why can't he figure out how to get into those splendid yellow loafers Harold buys him when (even though he can't tie the laces) he can get into his old sneakers? I will not cavil at such contrivances for they are theatrically effective ways of making legitimate points. And the points they make are well worth making.

Orphans is given the kind of lustrous, polished production we have come to expect of Joseph Stern, who is gaining the reputation of a flair for infallibility. The cast is well-chosen, wonderful and admirably differentiated, and John Lehne's expert direction establishes its intrinsic rhythm while establishing Lehne in the forefront among Los Angeles directors. Paul Lieber's sharp, tough, street-smart Treat is volatile and dangerous as a hand grenade. His kind of retardation, Harold shows us, is more grievous than Phillip's, and both are a matter of environment and deprivation. Joe Pantollano's gentle, timid Phillip is irresistible with the sweet, eager to please innocence of childhood. Down to his twisted smile and raspy voice with its occasional spurts of explosive volume, Lane Smith is marvelously right for ex-orphan, self-made millionaire, rough-cut hero Harold, pure in heart though associate of gangsters and thugs. The strength and steel of his intellect and maleness are enriched into wondrous treasure by his extraordinary (superhuman?) tenderness and love. With his power and need to nurture, forgive, redeem "dead end kids" he embodies the essence of fatherhood, just when we might have been in danger of doubting its existence, and makes it the emotional equal of motherhood, which has received a much better press. Harold is gratifyingly infallible, invincible, indomitable, apparently indestructible and— good, as opposed to what we've seen too much of lately: impotence, helplessness and evil. Just what we need when we need him.

D. Martyn Bookwalter's set is so true it's imprinted on our memories. We've seen it all before; it's so familiar with its dingy details, spots on the wall where pictures no longer hang, scruffy wallpaper, dispirited window shades. In the second act, two weeks later, we see small miracles of change with Harold's influence. Martin Aronstein puts his prestigious talent at the service of Equity-waiver and lights the old family home with pale sepia memory tints of old photos; it lingers lovingly on a chosen subject as each scene ends. Doug Spesert's costumes indicate the orphans' improved condition, while Harold's long journey from orphanhood is shown in his consistent GQstyle, always impeccable. Jon Gottlieb's sound is, as ever, fitting and also unobtrusive. J.A.C. Redford composed the appropriate and lovely incidental music.

Orphans can be taken to the heart as a rare treat, funny, poignant, exciting and best of all inspiriting.

L.A. WEEKLY, Sept. 2-8, 1983 (PICK OF THE WEEK)
by Joie Davidow

Treat is a petty thief. He keeps himself and his brother Phillip in mayonnaise and Starkist tuna by stealing wallets, watches and rings. Phillip is afraid to go outside. He thinks tie's allergic to a lot of things, especially fresh air. Phillip can't even tie his own shoelaces, and Treat likes it that way. It gives him a certain authority over his brother. The boys are orphans, you see. Dad ran away from home long ago, and Mom died when they were still little kids, so they've been fending for themselves in the family's old North Philadelphia house ever since. One day, Treat brings home Harold, a drunken middle-aged man wearing an expensive suit. Harold has a leather briefcase full of negotiable securities and a wallet full of credit cards. Treat thinks he's hit paydirt this time. Harold is full of stories about his own childhood spent in an orphanage, and he's certainly glad he found Treat in that downtown bar, that he finally met a "real dead end kid." Treat decides to kidnap Harold and hold him for ransom, but Harold turns the tables on Treat and pulls a gun on him. "I'm not going to hurt you," Harold says, "I'm just going to hire you." And so begins Harold's rehabilitation of brothers Phillip and Treat. But who is Harold? Is he a gangster running from the mob, a self-made millionaire, a guardian angel come to rescue these derelict boys? John Lehne has beautifully directed this world premiere of Lyle Kessler's play, finding its naive charm, taking advantage of every laugh in the dark comedy, and adding a few slapstick chuckles of his own. The performances are all quite wonderful — Paul Lieber's swaggering, violent Treat, Joe Pantoliano's innocent, slobbering Phillip and Lane Smith's suave and kindly Harold. Their characterizations are neatly balanced, part real people part allegorical creatures, and both Lieber and Pantoliano manage liquid smooth transitions as Harold dresses them up and civilizes them.  D. Martyn Bookwalter's set is a nice combination of sleazy authenticity and humor.


by Sandra Kreiswirth

Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" at the Matrix Theater in Los Angeles is a fascinating, slightly flawed fable/fantasy about love, trust and discovery.

Joseph Stern has delivered yet another excellent production under the auspices of Actors For Themselves enhanced by John Lehne's fine direction and strong performances by Joe Pantoliano, Lane Smith and Paul Lieber.

This world premiere captures' the imagination at once. It's funny, sad, depressing, uplifting and sometimes farfetched.

Set in a run-down house in North Philadelphia, "Orphans" is the tale of two brothers — one a mugger, the other an apparently retarded recluse — whose lives are changed when their kidnap victim takes charge of their lives.

Treat (Lieber) is the older brother. A grown-up juvenile delinquent who supports himself and his brother by relieving people on the street of their valuables. He's not adverse to cutting up his victims a bit to keep them quiet, then can't understand why they verbally abuse him. Except for a stint in reform school, he's taken care of his brother ever since their mother died when they were children. He's provided a home of sorts for his brother but emotionally only delivered custodial care along with lots of Bellman's mayonnaise and Star-Kist tuna.

Phillip (Pantoliano) is an innocent. He dresses in torn clothes and shoes with untied laces because he's never been taught how to make a knot Treat forces him to stay in the house because years ago he had an allergic reaction outside. He watches old movies and game shows, knows the brand name of every prize on "The Price is Right" and spends a lot of time hiding in the upstairs closets filled with his mother's old coats.

Treat tells Phillip he has no intellect, yet Treat occasionally finds Words underlined in the newspaper. When pressed, Phillip makes up fantasies about Errol Flynn hiding in the house. Errol must have underlined the words. Ultimately Treat not only discovers a dictionary hidden inside the sofa, but other books, too.

What exactly is Phillip doing when Treat's not home? And if he knows enough to be able to read, why is he still there? He treasures a red satin pump he's gotten from Somewhere — but where? Those questions go unanswered.

Harold (Smith) is Treat's victim - an expensively dressed man he meets downtown and lures home to rob. Harold, urbane and all-knowing, comes with Treat because he sees him as a little Dead End Kid. Harold passes out drunk waking to find himself bound and gagged. A fan of Houdini, he easily frees himself the next morning while Treat's on the streets leaving a helpless Phillip to watch with wide-eyes. Does Harold escape?

Of course not He stays to teach these brothers the lessons of life. He tells them stories about being an orphan newsboy in Chicago and wearing copies of the Chicago Tribune to ward off the icy winds. He offers Phillip affection - "I bet your shoulders are dying for an encouraging squeeze — which is just what he needs. No more worry about tying shoe laces, Harold promises Phillip slip-on loafers. Any color. And he's not even mad at Treat. Instead he offers him a job as his bodyguard — his background is shady.

By act two, Harold has moved in, decorated the apartment and put Treat on his payroll. He's dressed Phillip in white wool pants and pink silk shirt. Pale yellow loafers grace his feet Treat has traded his fatigues and torn T-shirts for Pierre Cardin suits, and he's become intimately acquainted with Harold's American Express card.

As he sings "If I Had the Wings of an Angel," Harold has all the answers. He appears in the brothers' lives suddenly as if sent by some mysterious force. He's Robin Hood. He's the guardian angel He explains everything so clearly.

He's an evangelist, a psychologist, a friend. What ever the problem, he has special insight. For Phillip, he has the ultimate key to unlocking the door of life ifor the child/man — the answer to where he is in time and space. What is it? A street map of Philadelphia. That's apparently all it takes. Treat's problems are deeper — not to be cured so easily.

Ultimately Kessler's ending is a bit of a fairy tale wrap-up. But getting there

is both fun and touching. Despite the fact that Kessler asks us to accept a few shaky propositions, especially about Phillip, "Orphans" is imaginitive in its concept and keeps the audiences' attention from start to finish. Kessler's characters are well drawn with each one's language unique to himself.

Pantoliano's Phillip is endearing. He's wonderful to watch in his confused innocence and even more interesting as he discovers life's simple answers. Lane gives Harold a mysterious other-world quality. He could very easily be an imaginary character. And Lieber, the most traditional member of this trio, is a good contrast to the other two — an example of a hustler existing purely on instincts — most 'of them bad.

Lehne's direction has resulted in tight ensemble work with excellent pacing. The first act is over before you know it In fact the evening (two acts — three scenes in each) zips by. D. Martyn Bookwalter's seamy living room set changes from musty, old, cluttered and dirty to well-appointed and chic between acts. When the lights go out, the wallpaper becomes star-studded.

Doug Spesert's costumes, Martin Aronstein's lighting and Jon Gottlieb's sound design live up to the excellent standards we've come to expect from an Actors For Themselves Production.

STAR-NEWS, Friday, Sept. 2, 1983


Hey, what is it with this guy, anyway? Kidnapped by a thug, guarded by a seemingly demented recluse, he shows no fear. He frees himself with surprising ease, yet doesn't escape. He helps these two rejects of society. He likes these two rejects of society. Who does this guy think he is?

Audience members can answer that question for themselves at Lyle Kessler's "Orphans," a moving and delightful parable now at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood. Actors for Themselves, the company that presented last year's multi-award-winning "Betrayal," has done itself proud in a very different kind of play.

John Lehne has directed "Orphans" with a fine feeling for both the comedy and the deeper meanings of the script. The result is coherent and thoughtful, and the shifting relationships between the characters make sense throughout the play.

Paul Lieber, playing the mugger, Treat, gives a multi-level performance. His coldness and greed are incontestable; but so is his love for his reclusive brother, although he's unable — for most of the play — to express that love as more than a threatened possessiveness.

Joe Pantoliano gives a remarkable performance as Phillip, Treat's brother. This is a role that could have been easy to overdo, to caricature, but Pantoliano never stoops to that. In his smallest facial expressions and gestures, he creates a real person with a real desire for a better life.

The whole play hinges on Harold, the mysterious stranger who takes this unlikely pair under his wing, and Lane Smith responds fully to the challenge. He is knowing without being judgmental, pragmatic without being unloving, humorous without flippancy.

D. Martyn Bookwalter's set sums up the play beautifully: a once-beautiful house gone hopelessly to seed in the first act, made comfortable and home-like in the second. Martin Aronstein's lighting design is equally appropriate.

Doug Spesert's costumes are right for each character, most particularly for Phillip's second-act evolution: socially acceptable, but still slightly off-the-wall. The original music for the show, composed by J.A.C. Redford, is warm and cheerful.

ORPHANS went on to a new production in 1985 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, directed by Gary Sinise.  The production starred Kevin Anderson, Terry Kinny and John Mahoney, and featured new songs by Pat Metheny & Lyle Mayes.  Actors For Themselves and Joseph Stern were credited in the program with the original production.


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