It’s not hard to spot the bad guys in fiction. Whether it’s the twisted charm of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” or the old-fashioned thuggery of Begbie in “Trainspotting,” we are always certain of our enemy. But in the preem of “Orphans,” playwright Dennis Kelly presents an altogether more unsettling monster. That’s because Liam, who arrives at the apartment of his sister Helen and her partner, Danny, with his shirt covered in blood, is an utterly convincing good guy. Only as dark comedy unfolds into grim tragedy in this gripping three-hander does Kelly make it apparent who we’re truly dealing with.
A similar sense of uncertainty is built into the very fabric of the play. If you thought the dialogue of early Harold Pinter was fractured, wait until you hear the non sequiturs and broken phrases Kelly gives his three characters. He pushes conversation to the absolute limit of comprehension, brilliantly pinning down the way we communicate in spite of our clumsy phrasing and inability to complete a sentence.
In this, the dialogue also carries echoes of David Mamet, but it goes further in suggesting that even the characters don’t know what they want. They contradict themselves not only on a line-by-line basis, but also within a single sentence. To Danny’s enigmatic question “I mean do you, have you been thinking … ?,” Helen replies, “No. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe yes.”
Much of this, under the steady hand of helmer Roxanna Silbert, is very funny, and it’s a tremendous credit to actors Joe Armstong (Liam), Claire-Louise Cordwell (Helen) and Jonathan McGuinness (Danny) that they communicate exactly what they’re thinking –and then the exact opposite — without missing a beat. For all their unpredictable outbursts, they persuade us of their good intentions and of their genuine concern that something unpleasant has taken place in the bleak urban landscape beyond their comfortable middle-class dining room (realized in muted tones by designer Garance Marneur).
In this, the London-based Kelly — best known as co-author of the award-winning cult British TV comedy “Pulling” — reflects on the alienated nature of inner-city living and the way street violence exacerbates feelings of fear, which in turn cultivate a pack mentality and a nasty streak of racism. Danny, for example, prides himself on his liberal outlook, but having been beaten up by Asian youths, he is vulnerable to making racially motivated assumptions about the veracity of Liam’s story.
That story, however, is incredibly difficult to pin down. It takes the whole play to ascertain what Liam has been up to, during which time he morphs in our eyes from a good Samaritan into a mindless assailant. And yet there is still an aspect of him that appears to be a loving, loyal uncle to his sister Helen’s son. That he and Helen were orphaned as children is a plausible excuse for his misdemeanors — one his sister is prepared to accept — but eventually, the gulf between his words and his actions becomes untenable.
Meanwhile, in their urge to look after him, Helen and Danny allow themselves to stray into murky moral areas, even while they’re convinced they’re acting for the good. It means that a brisk, if dark, comedy develops into an unsettling reflection on the capacity to do evil within us all.