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NEW YORK – Shia who? Just weeks ago the noisy departure of Shia LaBeouf during rehearsals – followed by his circulation of email exchanges with fellow cast member Alec Baldwin and director Daniel Sullivan – threatened to overshadow the arrival of Orphans on Broadway. But this dynamite production of Lyle Kessler’s play needs no assist from offstage friction to galvanize attention. Packaged as a post-30 Rock return to the stage for Baldwin, this is a scorching display of ensemble acting in which the star is evenly matched by riveting performances from Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge, making the descent from black comedy into tragedy a bracing theatrical thrill ride.
The play’s previous New York exposure was in a 1985 Off Broadway transfer of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, directed by Gary Sinise and starring John Mahoney, Kevin Anderson and Terry Kinney. Audiences who saw that staging or the 1987 film in which Albert Finney starred with Anderson and Matthew Modine might recall Orphans as a considerably darker work. They may also be resistant to this different interpretation.
Casting Baldwin as Harold, the boozing Chicago crook holed up in a shabby North Philadelphia row house with two near-feral brothers, significantly ups the absurdist comedy. There are familiar traits here from the actor’s role as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, from his last New York stage appearance in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and from some of his more memorable SNL sketches. Baldwin’s comic specialty is combining imperious authority with blithe eccentricity and inappropriate sexual undertones. All that might risk derailing Kessler’s play. But on the contrary, Baldwin and Sullivan shrewdly harness that dangerous persona, using humor as a subversive force to make the eventual shift into despair a visceral gut punch.
Abandoned by their father at a young age, Treat (Foster) and Phillip (Sturridge) have been living alone since the death of their mother while they were still children. Having managed to keep them under the welfare radar, thuggish Treat finances their meager existence with the proceeds of muggings, while Phillip is confined to the house. Infantilized by his protective older brother, he is convinced that any foray into the outside world will bring about a repeat of the apparently severe allergic reactions he suffered as a child.
Enter Harold, who staggers in full of bourbon with Treat one night, prattling on with maudlin sentimentality about how the rough-edged young man brings back memories of his own orphanage childhood, and of the Dead End Kids, the street urchin characters he used to watch at Saturday movie matinees. Treat believes he has hit the jackpot when Harold passes out drunk and his briefcase is revealed to contain a small fortune in stocks and bonds. On impulse, he ties the pickled stranger to a chair and puts a half-assed ransom plan into action. But, left alone under Phillip’s supervision, Harold’s powers of manipulation prove too strong for any rope.
Harold has his own reasons for hiding out in Philly, but he also takes to the idea of playing father figure and mentor to the boys, sharing his peculiar perspectives on free enterprise, the profit motive and the human condition. He both encourages and tames Treat’s violent streak while coaxing Phillip to trust his instincts, explore his thwarted intellectual curiosity and overcome his unfounded fears. That thread, in particular, is played with acute poignancy. Equally moving is watching Treat’s anxiety grow as his brother begins showing signs of independence. His fragile command has been maintained up to now by convincing Phillip that he is unfit to think for himself.
The role reversals and shifting control dynamics are skillfully navigated by the three cast members in a production that makes vigorous use of the cavernous physical space of John Lee Beatty’s imposing set. The rundown house screams neglect in the first act – frayed furniture; grubby, torn wallpaper; mottled ceiling; broken banisters leading to upstairs bedrooms partially visible behind a scrim. The quick cosmetic makeover on the premises, signaling that Harold has taken charge, gets a huge laugh when the Act II curtain goes up.
Riffing off his own personality while inhabiting a distinctive character, Baldwin’s performance shows exactly why he is a comedy genius. He makes a simple drunken reverie about an Irish mother cooking corn beef and cabbage into oddball poetry. But beneath the sly humor he also taps directly into Kessler’s theme of three very different men who have been deprived of parental love and nurturing, each of them looking to compensate in his own way. It would be impossible to laugh at the way Harold wraps the lads around his finger if it weren’t also clear that he actually comes to care about them. That makes his fate all the more sorrowful.
Despite a bio with zero evidence of stage experience, Foster (who replaced LaBeouf in the production) is a natural. Playing Treat as a hothead who wears his raw feelings on the surface along with his simmering rage, the actor displays the volatile intensity of a young Robert Duvall. As the action progresses and his big-brother/protector role gets undermined, the cracks begin to appear in Treat’s posturing tough-guy act. When he disappoints Harold and then feels the familiar wounds of loss and abandonment reopen he’s heart-wrenching.
The real surprise, however, is young Brit actor Sturridge (On the Road). He shows astonishing athleticism and expressive physicality, leaping from one surface to another with simian agility or shrinking into a huddled ball. But he also conveys the alert mind ticking away behind the stuttering words and the twitchy, obsessive behavior. There’s a distinct sense here of a docile but unpredictable caged animal, literally about to burst with pent-up energy. For both Foster and Sturridge, this is a killer Broadway debut.
With its obvious debt to Harold Pinter, Kessler’s play is in many ways a minor work. But it’s a sensational vehicle for the right actors. In addition to assembling a crack design team, Sullivan has put together a dazzling trio to flesh out these three lost boys. Like a master conductor, he has them bouncing off one another in ways that make Orphans wickedly funny one minute and powerfully emotional the next.
Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (runs through June 30)
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster, Tom Sturridge
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: Lyle Kessler
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Pat Collins
Music: Tom Kitt
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Frederick Zollo, Robert Cole, The Shubert Organization, Orin Wolf, Lucky VIII, Scott M. Delman, James P. MacGilvray, Stylesfour Productions
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