at the theatre: orphans

orphansLyle Kessler’s Orphans is a curious little play. The story of two brothers – one a grifter, the other a shut-in – and the mysterious gangster that upends their lives has long been a regional theater favorite. It’s slight, but affecting, and the three roles have enough meat to give any actor interested in delving deep into a character study a lot to chew on. (Maybe that explains why chunks of the play so often turn up as audition pieces.) But to be impactful as an evening of theater those three actors need to be evenly matched, which is not the case in director Daniel Sullivan’s production debuting on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Tom Sturridge, an actor heretofore unknown to me, gives a performance of such feral specificity as Phillip, the autistic shut-in, that it leaves you wondering what might have been had his partners in crime been able to rise to his level. As Treat, Ben Foster, who replaced Shia LaBeouf after a surreal and very public spat involving creative differences, has his moments but lacks the urgent desperation which comes with assuming the mantle of being his brother’s keeper after Mom and Dad…well, we really don’t know what happened, but it’s obvious that Treat and Phillip have been left to fend for themselves for a long time. Treat gets by as a petty criminal, without any aspiration except to provide for him and his brother – a couple of orphans clinging to each other and enabling their own askew reality in a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood. (The City of Brotherly Love, natch.) Enter Harold, played by Alec Baldwin, a dapper, connected “businessman” lured home from a bar after a night of serious drinking by Treat, who’s hatched a cockamamie plan to hold Harold hostage for a tidy ransom. After passing out Harold wakes the next morning to find himself tied to a chair and it seems that perhaps the ridiculous plan was indeed sublime. Yet playwright Kessler subverts our expectations: Harold easily escapes his ropes, and rather than flee becomes a surrogate father to these two lost boys. You could say he gives them a lesson in self-actualization, helping Phillip to conquer his fears of the big bad world beyond the front door and giving Treat a job, along with a taste for fine suits and bourbon. Suffice it to say this happy domestic arrangement doesn’t last long and things don’t end well. There’s no emotional payoff, however, if we don’t believe these boys are fully invested in Harold. Which brings us to Mr. Baldwin. It’s disconcerting to watch an actor of such estimable talent stumble so demonstrably. His stylized shuck and jive often comes across as funny but it’s emotionally hollow, leaving you to question Harold’s existence as anything other than a metaphor made flesh. And his rapid-fire delivery a la Jack Donaghy too often threatens to turn this production into an extended sitcom – albeit one with an unfortunate ending. What subtle thrills this play provides should come from the shifting dynamics of power in the family love triangle but Baldwin is clearly the alpha male here and his persona can’t seem to find the backseat. Maybe ShiaLaBeoufwas right after all. Or maybe he was just too terrified by the dizzying bar set so high by Mr. Sturridge.

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