Lyle Kessler’s play “The Orphans” is apparently the kind of thing movie stars fight to be in. But it’s not always clear why we have to fight to get a ticket.
It’s a testosterone-laden darkly humorous piece that offers three great parts — a mentally challenged young man, a bubbling eruption of male anger and a cool-as-ice older dude — but generates little light. This is a play more fun to act in than watch.
The production that opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is likely best known for a creative dustup between Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, which led to the younger man’s leaving it in a cloud of tweets. He may have the last laugh.
Kessler’s play, which premiered in 1983 in Los Angeles, has touches reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” and John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.” The humor sometimes smacks of Martin McDonagh’s absurdist vein, and the dialogue is often overly heightened rat-tat-tat.
“The Orphans” is about two orphaned brothers forced to fend for themselves in a rotting house in North Philadelphia. One brother, Treat, is a pistol without the safety on, a cauldron of rage. His sibling, Philip, is a bundle of insecurities, who is told to stay inside for his own protection; he basically just watches TV and eats mayonnaise and tuna.
One day, Treat brings the very drunk rich-looking Harold home, ties him up and tries to leverage him for a ransom. Things don’t exactly go according to plan: Harold takes a shine to his captors and becomes a father figure of sorts.
The biggest problem here is that the three actors are determined to be in different plays and director Daniel Sullivan hasn’t been able to make them gel. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time.
Tom Sturridge plays Philip as if he’s looking for an Academy Award nomination — a bundle of tics, prone to leaping to and from pieces of furniture or sitting in a crouch, using a whiny voice and with hands that hang in front of him. With his long hair, Sturridge seems to be trying to resemble a bird trapped in a cage. He should really stop doing that.
Ben Foster, who bravely took LaBeouf’s role when he left during rehearsals, has a more naturalistic take on Treat but lacks the killer instinct to be truly menacing while in full Hulk mode. Foster, though excellent when he’s in psychic pain or mimicking Harold, can’t quite become a monster.
It’s clear why Baldwin wanted to play Harold, a wiseguy who turns out to be an orphan himself. Baldwin gets to hop around in a chair while tied up, be elegant, funny and worldly, teach his young charges about bouillabaisse and offer them an “encouraging squeeze.” Baldwin’s natural aristocratic side fits nicely here. It’s just that he’s paired with a bird-boy and a guy acting really hard to be scary.
John Lee Beatty’s interior set is not as outrageously decrepit as it could be when we first see it, but his little touches after Harold enters the boys’ lives — bannisters are repaired and a nicer couch appears, as well as a nifty drinks cart — are fabulous touches. Jess Goldstein’s costumes perfectly zoom from homebound to fancy, and Tom Kitt’s blasts of rock between sets is unnerving, in a good way.
In the end, Harold will free Philip from his house arrest — he takes him outside and gives him a map, prompting the younger man to burst out “I know where I am now, Harold!” — and try to teach Treat self-discipline, but this makeshift family of damaged orphans cannot survive long, no matter how much they need each other.
Philip’s burgeoning independence threatens Treat, and the play then takes a descent into melodrama that smacks of Tennessee Williams, but without that master’s profundity. One of the three characters dies, two others are left sobbing and the audience may deserve an “encouraging squeeze.”
After seven seasons on “30 Rock” as TV exec Jack Donaghy, a controlling blowhard with parent issues, Alec Baldwin returns to Broadway in “Orphans.” He plays aging crook Harold, a controlling blowhard with parent issues.
Baldwin, never shy about speaking his own mind offstage, is fully in his comfort zone. He delivers a wily magnetic star turn.
Baldwin’s not alone. Broadway rookies Tom Sturridge and Ben Foster, who replaced Shia LaBeouf after his high-profile exit from the show during rehearsals, match the Emmy winner moment-by-moment as siblings whose lives collide with Harold.
The trio’s sirloin-juicy performances bring out the best in Lyle Kessler’s 1983 drama, now on Broadway for the first time. During those 30 years, “Orphans” became an Albert Finney film and a go-to show for regional companies.
The play is built on a hoary foundation: A stranger enters a home and rearranges everybody’s lives along with the furniture.
The setting is a shabby North Philadelphia row house, designed here in crummy, off-kilter detail by John Lee Beatty. Treat (Foster) steals to support himself and his dim baby brother, Phillip (Sturridge). Kept under Treat’s thumb, Phillip leaps around from couch to stairs to window ledge like he’s in a monkeyhouse.
Treat escalates his criminal ways when he kidnaps Harold, a Chicago gangster, who, like the young men, is an orphan and haunted by that fact. He looks like an easy mark. In a twist, the tables turn on who’s captive. Things evolve.
“Orphans” is a modest and contrived play, but it courses with sly ironies (i.e., benevolence can backfire) and succeeds in cleverly compressing truths and conveying big ideas. A pair of new shoes signals freedom, a discarded mayonnaise jar points to a major change.
Daniel Sullivan directs and creates a visceral environment and an entertaining production. Foster (“Six Feet Under,” “3:10 to Yuma”) brings a perfect volatile-vulnerable mix as Treat. London-born Sturridge (“Being Julia”) delivers a performance filled with energy and surprises and free of sentiment.
Baldwin, a 1992 Tony nominee for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” knows how to command a stage. Harold is built to be showy. A dash more danger would have added tension, but his blustery glibness works for the role.
Like when Treat appears in new pants and asks Harold how they fit. Baldwin wrings a huge laugh from his character’s terse response: “The crotch is fine.”
Ditto Baldwin’s stage comeback.
Considering its agitated gestation, it’s amazing how smooth “Orphans” is. During rehearsals, actor Shia LaBeouf had well-publicized -- by himself -- arguments with co-star Alec Baldwin and director Daniel Sullivan. In short order, LaBeouf was out and Ben Foster was in.
But the real surprise is the laughter. “Orphans” is meant to be one of the most hard-hitting dramas of the ’80s, but the audience at the Schoenfeld, where Lyle Kessler’s play is having a belated Broadway premiere, cracks up often.
And it’s laughing with the show, not at it.
It seems that in the 28 years since “Orphans” bowed off-Broadway, its darkly comic side has taken over. Whether that was the new team’s intention or not, this production works on its own terms.
The play takes place in the dilapidated Philadelphia house shared by two brothers. Treat (Foster), a small-time hoodlum, looks out for the younger, mentally fragile Phillip (Tom Sturridge). A dreamy shut-in -- Treat told him his allergies will kill him -- Phillip is a semiferal creature. Seemingly afraid to touch the floor, he gracefully jumps and slides over the stairs and furniture, and generally uses the set like an indoors parkour trail.
The brothers’ delicate balance is thrown out of whack after Treat brings home a drunk man, Harold (Baldwin), in hopes of scoring a ransom.
Harold turns out to be a lot tougher than Treat suspected.
“You kidnap a man, first thing you do is frisk him,” Harold patiently reminds him after pulling out a gun.
But Harold, who’s come from Chicago with a suitcase of stocks and bonds and a shady past, isn’t interested in killing Treat -- instead he hires him as a bodyguard. An orphan himself, he sees fellow Dead End Kids in the brothers and moves in with them. Together they create their own oddball family.
The trio’s domestic scenes are played fast and deadpan, with comically surreal results.
Treat now struts his stuff in a three-piece suit. Phillip, who once subsisted on tuna and industrial quantities of mayonnaise, tries Harold’s bouillabaisse. More laughter.
The downside of pulling the play in a Coen brothers’ direction is that the intensity is diminished, and we lose the sense of danger and pathos -- in some ways Harold has improved the siblings’ life, but in others he’s messed up their relationship.
Baldwin deftly suggests Harold’s paternal sentimentality, even if at times he feels like Jack Donaghy engaged in his toughest mentoring project yet.
In the end what we remember is Sturridge’s astonishing turn. The young British actor (“Pirate Radio”) is fearlessly physical, but he also gives us the sense of a wild child opening up to the world outside his window. Phillip may be the most unstable character on the stage, but he’s the one who keeps the show together.
A deceptive blast of primal energy begins the limp revival of Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,” which opened on Thursday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. The chemistry of this introductory salvo comes from crude but effective elements: an overamplified run of screaming notes from an electric guitar; a ravaged, abandoned-looking room shrouded in sinister lighting.
And, oh yeah, let’s not forget that feral young man who makes his entrance tearing across the set like a rabid flying squirrel. This kid (played by the British actor Tom Sturridge) can climb walls better than Spider-Man, and he looks like the kind of person who eats insects for breakfast. Get ready, you tell yourself happily, for a tail-kicking night of tearing down the house.
That, more or less, was how “Orphans” was described the first time it visited New York in 1985, in an Off Broadway production from the two-fisted Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago. In his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich called it a work in which “actors rip themselves apart with a raw ferocity.”
There was reason to hope — or dread, depending on how nice a person you are — that this latest incarnation of “Orphans,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, with a three-member cast led by Alec Baldwin, might raise the ferocity quotient even higher. In February, during early rehearsals, the production made headlines when one of its actors, Shia LaBeouf, made public some e-mails that vividly described disagreements within the company.
Mr. LaBeouf was replaced by another film actor, Ben Foster, but further stoked the fires of speculation by discussing the play with David Letterman and by appearing, very visibly, at an early preview of “Orphans.” What effect might such behavior have on a cast that seemed especially susceptible to violent forms of catharsis?
Mr. Baldwin, as any reader of tabloids knows, is widely perceived as a highly combustible being. As for the others, well, Mr. Foster was pretty scary as the sadistic outlaw in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” and Mr. Sturridge made his name as a London stage actor playing a homicidal high school student in Simon Stephens’s “Punk Rock.” The combination of cast and circumstance sounded like a promising recipe for a Molotov cocktail.
Now comes the deflating part, and I suggest you stop reading if you’re easily scarred by disappointment. Perhaps the participants in this revival felt that they had had enough of fireworks for a while, so they decided to make nice, tread gently and, in the case of Mr. Baldwin, keep a respectful distance from the proceedings.
In “Orphans,” knives, guns, fists, rope and duct tape are all deployed to violent ends. Yet this version somehow plays like a sentimental sitcom, perhaps a low-rent “Modern Family.” The crowd with which I saw “Orphans” chuckled contentedly through most of the show (1:45, with intermission), except at the end, when one of the characters snuggled up to a corpse. Then everybody went, “Awww,” the way audiences do at the current revival of “Annie” whenever the dog shows up.
“Orphans” definitely does not benefit from a soft touch. Many of those who acclaimed the 1985 production suspected that the script needed all the visceral juicing-up it could get. (Mr. Rich tactfully described it as “theater for the senses and the emotions, not the mind.”) As was widely observed at the time, the setup of “Orphans” recalls that of Harold Pinter’s groundbreaking “Caretaker” (1960), not a work, you would think, that a lesser play would ever want to stand next to.
Like “The Caretaker,” “Orphans” is a tale of two brothers — one a vicious thug and one with developmental problems — and an older man who winds up in the siblings’ squalid digs. Mr. Kessler varied the formula by making the interloper a rich gangster instead of a shabby homeless man. But the dynamic of both dramas comes — or should come — from the shifting and blurring of power within a triangle.
The first problem with Mr. Sullivan’s production is that nobody exudes a sense of, or even a sense of hunger for, power. The arguable exception is Mr. Sturridge, who portrays Phillip, the agoraphobic, seemingly autistic brother who stays at home while the older Treat (Mr. Foster) earns his living by mugging the citizens of Philadelphia at knife point. (It would appear that Mom and Dad disappeared when the boys were tots.)
Mr. Sturridge is playing the sort of role that comes with “Tony nominee” tattooed on its forehead, that of a mentally challenged, education-deprived person who learns to assert himself. But the physicality with which he inhabits his part is something else. He occupies John Lee Beatty’s vast, derelict set (lighted by Pat Collins) with an obsessive knowledge of its every crevice, moving as if he suspected it were rigged with land mines.
Enter Treat, back from a day of thieving and knifing, percolating with both intimidating rage and fraternal protectiveness. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to infer. Mr. Foster doesn’t do intimidating rage so well. His performance feels so inwardly concentrated that Treat seems like a danger only to himself.
One night Treat brings home the drunken, nattily dressed Harold (Mr. Baldwin), who keeps mumbling treacly stuff about little “Dead End Kids,” in reference to the street urchins of the Depression-era movies. Harold, it turns out, grew up in an orphanage and has a tender spot for other motherless boys. And he morphs from the brothers’ hostage into their mentor and employer.
I assume that Harold was written as a slippery character, but Mr. Baldwin’s performance eludes the possibility of our getting any kind of grip on it at all. He keeps trying on different voices that variously evoke an Irish blarney-spinner, the spielmeister Harold Hill from “The Music Man” and the unctuous Jack Donaghy, the egomaniacal producer Mr. Baldwin played so delectably on “30 Rock.” It’s a mutating cartoon of a performance, with only hints of the requisite menace.
This leaves the field open for Mr. Sturridge’s Phillip, who, in addition to being dazzlingly acrobatic, does nifty imitations of the game show hosts and movie stars he sees on television. But with Phillip in charge of our attention, “Orphans” starts to seem like an all-male version of Garson Kanin’s comedy “Born Yesterday,” in which a bimbo whom nobody takes seriously stands up for herself by reciting from the Declaration of Independence. (And, yes, Phillip really does the same thing.)
Mr. Sturridge, by the way, handles footwear as stylishly as anyone in the new musical “Kinky Boots.” I particularly enjoyed watching Phillip wax poetic over a lone red high heel, and he wears both grimy untied sneakers and yellow loafers with aplomb. That’s about it for kicks of color in this dispiritingly pallid show.
Forget all the theatrical blood on the walls in rehearsals of "Orphans." Forget the noisy firing of Shia LaBeouf, the ugly leaked emails and anything you've read or heard about Alec Baldwin's lapses of emotional discipline.
If these words are not too strange to use about a very dark power play about feral brothers and a violent kidnapping, "Orphans" is a giddy delight -- an acting treat, a fast-talking adrenaline jolt and lots of fun. Serious fun, OK, but definitely fun.
And despite the fame of Baldwin and the fine movie reputation of La Beouf's last-minute replacement Ben Foster, the name people are likely to remember from this revival of Lyle Kessler's three-man 1983 drama is Tom Sturridge. Everyone in Daniel Sullivan's tight and powerful production is first-rate, but Sturridge, a young British actor in his Broadway debut, creates a vulnerable, stunted character who flies like a monkey from furniture to window pane without his feet ever touching the floor. He is amazing.
But first, a word about the play. When "Orphans" had its New York premiere in 1985, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production, directed by Gary Sinise, was hailed as a breakthrough of explosive ferocity. But even then, despite the high-voltage nastiness, the menace struck me more as Pinter-lite -- with a twist of Sam Shepard identity switch -- than a genuine original.
It still does, but one is unlikely to be dwelling on Kessler's influences from the first glimpse of the catapulting Sturridge to the final disturbing tableaux. Foster and Sturridge are deeply believable as Treat and Phillip, orphaned brothers in a run-down house (designed by John Lee Beatty) in North Philadelphia.
Treat is the older, alpha boy, a sociopath with a knife who has protected his baby brother by convincing him that he has deadly allergies to the outdoors. Treat kidnaps a drunken rich guy for ransom, but the guy (Baldwin) turns out to be a Chicago gangster, an orphan and a father figure.
How terrific to have Baldwin back onstage and in such sly command of every nuance. Though he is hardly the steamy beauty who captured theatergoers with offbeat romances and scary Joe Orton plays in the mid-'80s, there is no hint of the sluggish actor who dragged himself through "Macbeth" in 1998.
Despite his insinuating brushed-pewter voice and his layers of threatening good cheer, when he regularly offers the boys "some encouragement" by rubbing their shoulders, we actually feel a bit comforted.
"We're merely mammals," Cole Porter observed in Let's Misbehave; but the monkeying around he had in mind was very different from the kind that Tom Sturridge demonstrates in the first Broadway production of Lyle Kessler's 1983 play Orphans (three and a half out of four stars).
The British actor is cast as Phillip, who lives with his brother, Treat, in an old row house in North Philadelphia. Abandoned early on by their father, then left to their own devices when their mother died, the two have worked out a system for looking after each other: Treat goes out and robs people, while Phillip stays shut in at home, watching old movies and game shows on TV and eating tuna fish.
Sturridge, in a mesmerizing, heartrending performance, makes the impact of living this way for more than a decade wrenchingly clear. His Phillip is a coil of restless energy and primal fear who literally leaps around -- from the staircase to the window to the sofa -- like a caged primate in a zoo. He also crawls and cowers, terrorized both by Treat and the thought of walking outside.
But Treat is no more civilized than his brother, which becomes obvious after he kidnaps Harold, a mysterious, wealthy older man played in this production, which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, by Alec Baldwin. Harold also came of age without parents; raised in an orphanage, he immediately identifies his captor as one of the "dead-end kids" he knew there -- and has little trouble turning the tables on him, so that Treat, portrayed by Ben Foster, ends up catering to his intended victim.
Harold sees Treat as having potential in the dubious field that has earned him a fortune, along with powerful enemies and a little black book full of women's names. But while he admires the kid's capacity for violence, he worries about his lack of control. Phillip, in contrast, earns his affection immediately, and vice versa. As Harold begins mentoring the boys -- a process that is by turns darkly funny and moving to behold -- it's Phillip who seems to blossom, while Treat grows frustrated by his increasing lack of influence in the house.
Under Daniel Sullivan's sharply intuitive direction, Baldwin brings a delightful comic esprit to his role, finding the aspirational Henry Higgins in a man who is essentially a gangster, and revealing both humor and pathos in Harold's paternal concern for the younger men. And Foster -- who replaced Shia LaBoeuf after the latter left the production amid rumors of discord, re-inforced by LaBoeuf's private Twitter messages to his co-stars and Sullivan -- reveals the scared boy behind Treat's brutish behavior.
It's a shame that it took 30 years to bring this briskly entertaining, deeply affecting play to Broadway; but at least Orphans has arrived in good hands.
After all the hoo-hah about the backstage battles that had Alec Baldwin climbing onto his high horse and Shia LaBeouf crawling off the field, you’d have expected this “Orphans” revival to be carried in on a stretcher. Far from it. Lyle Kessler’s harrowing play, about two imperfectly socialized brothers living like feral animals in a rundown neighborhood of North Philadelphia, acquires unexpected emotional nuance under Daniel Sullivan’s incisive helming. And there’s plenty of high voltage in the electrifying ensemble work turned in by Baldwin, Tom Sturridge, and Shia’s worthy replacement, Ben Foster.
“Orphans” was a guy play from the get-go. Although it originated in a 1983 production at the Matrix Theater in L.A., Steppenwolf swooped down on it like a hawk and in 1985 mounted a version, directed by Gary Sinise in the high-testosterone house style, that pretty much laid down the blueprint for future productions.
After three decades, the play is still a hot property at home and abroad, which speaks to the enduring appeal of its powerful theme that fathers and sons must search each other out — to the point of creating these roles for themselves, if they must — because neither can survive without the other.
An uncanny sense of abandonment hangs over the play, which opens on the interior of an old row house so devoid of human touch that it appears uninhabited. In John Lee Beatty’s expressive setting, that empty feeling translates into faded wallpaper, shabby living room suite, bare kitchen cupboards, grimy front windows, and a staircase leading to a second floor that we’d rather not visit.
The house may look deserted, but two abandoned grown-up boys live here. Treat (Foster), the older, street-wise brother, has assumed the role of head of the household, which he maintains by robbing people at knifepoint. Foster, who played a cold, callous killer in “3:10 to Yuma,” gives us a jumpy, jittery Treat who seems primed for violence. But his layered performance also hints at more complex emotions behind all that coiled anger.
Phillip (Sturridge), the emotionally damaged younger sibling, would never survive without his brother, who supplies him with the cans of tuna fish that make up his diet and keeps him safe by spinning wild tales of the deadly perils that lie outside the house. (“People find out about you, they’re gonna put you away.”)
The performance turned in by Sturridge (busy in film, but keeping his spot warm on the English stage) is nothing less than amazing. Rather than portray Phillip as mentally deficient in some ill-defined way, he’s created a highly detailed and remarkably specific portrait of someone with Autism spectrum disorder who’s capable of functioning on a high level, but not without the help he’s not getting. Left to his own devices, he’s developed a natural gift for mimicry and athletic skills that send him bounding all over the set and straight up the walls. For all its physical prowess, it also happens to be a highly intelligent and quite sensitive performance.
In their horrifying way, the two creepy brothers are a family. Orphaned when their mother died and their abusive father deserted them, the brothers have constructed a relationship that’s a parody of a normal father-son bond. The disturbing thing about their rituals and games is that they are warped versions of that bond: erratic and cruel and edged in violence — exactly the kind of behavior that the brothers learned from their father.
Because Treat’s personality is so volatile, and his brother’s so unpredictable, there’s the constant threat that someone’s behavior will get out of hand. Which is exactly what happens when Treat comes home with Harold (Baldwin), a drunken businessman he has kidnapped, tied up, and plans to rob.
But hapless Harold isn’t at all what he seems. In a marvelous transformation scene, he slips out of both his bonds and his sad-sack character, emerging as someone unexpected. In yet another twist, executed with humor and compassion by Baldwin, this hard guy sizes up the situation, recognizes the brothers for the lost boys they are — indeed, orphans like himself — and takes over the parental role with a vengeance, “adopting” the boys and turning their household upside down.
The humor that Baldwin finds in Harold’s character and in the play itself is initially surprising, especially to anyone with lingering memories of the Steppenwolf punch-to-the-gut line of attack. But it suits Sullivan’s own interpretation, radical in its way, which is to mine the vein of tenderness that lies deeper in the play.
The dramatic reversal of fortune in the second act now becomes something more than a simple shift in power. It’s a conduit to the genuine feelings of affection that open up as Harold takes over the role of patient teacher, responsible provider, and loving Dad.
If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious.