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.


at the theater: high & the motherf**ker with the hat

Ask anyone who loves the theater and they’ll tell you it’s an addiction that can be hell. Mostly because the defining nature of every addict is a river of denial masquerading as unrepentant optimism:  tomorrow’s musical will be better; the next play promises to be worth the endurance effort. Each season brings with it a flood of false hope – for transcendence, redemption, ekstasis – but it’s springtime that is particularly difficult for theater junkies. The lead-up to June’s Tony Awards brings with it a torrent of last-minute contenders hoping to open just before the cut off date for nominations. (And cash-in on the huzzahs, natch) For an addict that means April and May are all about calibrating lithium dosages to survive the peaks and valleys that come with such an onslaught. Coincidentally, addiction was also the issue of the moment inside the theater last week at a pair of plays that had buzz about them for all the wrong reasons. Matthew Lombardo’s High marked Kathleen Turner’s return to Broadway in the role of a tough-talking nun (and recovering alcoholic) cajoled into saving a young heroin-addled hustler. However the buzz wasn’t about Turner, whose fine performance couldn’t mask the feebleness of Lombardo’s script.  It was about the male full frontal. The junkie and his junk, as it were.  Rare is the play so confident in its ineptitude that it takes to marketing itself with bold-faced warnings of peckers on parade.  The producers of High, perhaps sensing the first-rate turkey on their hands, stooped to such sensationalism, which, alas, was not enough to save it from closing a week after it opened.  Not that anyone asked me but I think another four-letter title could have summed up the entire enterprise more succinctly: Junk. The gossip surrounding Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new comedy was so vicious that junk is what I expected to be jonesing for down the block at the Schoenfeld Theatre.  Proving all the backbiters wrong, however, The Motherf**ker With The Hat turns out to be possibly the most convincing love story since Lolita. Jackie and Veronica (Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriquez) have a serious addiction: each other. They’ve been in love since they were kids. But after years of drug and alcohol addiction, Jackie’s finally sobered up and out on parole with the help of AA and a smooth talking Chris Rock as his sponsor. Yet Veronica doesn’t really care about sobering up – when love is pure and true nothing can come between them.  Nothing, that is, except the eponymous motherfucker whose hat Jackie finds in Veronica’s apartment.  What follows is one man’s soul crushing obsession to destroy his destroyer. Painfully thin, you can feel the ache in Bobby Cannavale’s guts as one betrayal begets another and salvation drifts further out of reach. Elizabeth Rodriquez is a house afire as his volatile and emotionally unstable soul mate. And contrary to almost every notice I’ve read, I thought Chris Rock gave an assuredly well-measured and funny performance. But it’s Yul Vaszquez as the health-food pushing cousin Julio that brings this comedy to a higher plane when he lets Jackie in on the secret that finally sets him free: big emotions are not for pinning down.  I love you, I hate you, I love you, I hate you; it’s always going to be a maelstrom when it’s your heart.


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