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'Orphans' is a daring drama

Leave it to the youngsters to shake things up, write their own rules, make their own way.

At the beginning of its third season, and with only three productions under its belt, Second Generation Theatre has uprooted the mold wherever it can. “Into The Woods,” the company’s debut, was an astoundingly intimate production of a theatrical juggernaut, and with a dream cast over which any company would salivate. Its follow-up, Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s),” was a left-field curveball, but politically stimulating. The next choice, Stephen Sondheim’s rarely produced but lauded musical, “Assassins,” would turn heads again: bold choices, big work, huge ambition.

Its newest production, Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,” continues Second Generation’s ongoing curation of plays that unravel our ideas of paternity, maternity, childhood and home. Kessler’s play is blunt and cold, dire and lonely. It has rattled audiences since 1983, most recently in a Broadway revival starring Alec Baldwin as mobster Harold and notorious bad-boy Shia LaBeouf as put-upon orphan son Treat. There are big personalities in this play, on stage and sometimes off. It’s the kind of work that demands loud, daring actors.

David Oliver has a loud production, and an occasionally daring one. It began with much anticipation, walking into the New Phoenix house and feeling as though we were on stage. The black box space, with its proscenium, is never arranged the same way, sometimes dropping seats on one of its many platforms, sometimes involving actors there, too.

Oliver stages it alongside the house-left wall, making the flexible square an even longer space than we’ve noticed. It feels as isolating as the abandoned North Philadelphia row house in which Treat and his younger brother Phillip reside. This house has its own ruined roads, dilapidated by rickety banisters, littered kitchen shelves and family ghosts. Andrew Hunt’s set design could have illustrated this run-down shelter more disastrously, but we still feel disoriented in this strange, cramped setup.

Oliver also has paced both dialogue and the many important moments of silence with an unnerving rhythm. This production beats its own heart, an essential element that we puzzlingly don’t always receive. The actors operate as if in their own private territories, crashing into each other at worst, changing because of it at best.

Anthony Alcocer is a satisfying Treat, angry about the right things, namely his brother’s survival in the face of apparent mental limitations, despite savantlike wits. He treats Phillip poorly, though, however rooted in love his toughness emanates. Alcocer is a logical choice for this conflicted, confusing, confused young man. He shows more sides to his brooding stage persona than we’ve seen before. I wondered how many more layers Treat has than what Alcocer has accessed, or than what he shared opening night. It’s a growth for the actor, no question, but not the production’s longest stride.

That would belong to PJ Tighe, in his electric embodiment of Phillip, laden with delicious eccentricities, boyish quirks and a thickly underlined inner turmoil. His physicality, wonderfully exhausting to follow, lets us into a mind that is endlessly hopeful, eternally young and painfully averse to domestic tranquility. This is a superb performance in ways I’m not sure one viewing can prove.

And that would be helpful, as I found some trouble with the middle of this performance. I’m encouraged by most every other element of this production, so that the shimmer with which the polished metal shines just needs more rubbing in those parts that remain blemished. It opens and closes with a whirlwind energy and bookends a story that I’m sure is more complete in the middle, yet for the life of me it didn’t retain my focus. I badly wanted it to, but it lost me.

I don’t want to pit this solely on Greg Natale’s performance as Harold, but truth be told, Natale’s electrifying first scene – a devilishly fun entrance, convincing of a stupor-strewn late night – went downhill soon thereafter. It’s a complicated, Tony Soprano-like role, juicy for the right chops. Natale doesn’t drip with this generous mobster’s contradictions; he’s just too nice a guy. That might have supported Alcocer’s eagerness to jump off Treat’s cliff. It’s never one person’s fault, but at some point, the middle four scenes thaw out what is otherwise a bone-chilling survival that, if nothing else, feels more alive in the dark than in daylight.

THEATER REVIEW

2.5 stars

What: “Orphans”

Where: Second Generation Theatre at New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park

When: Through March 1

Tickets: $20 and $25

Info: www.secondgenerationtheatre.com

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