Update: Orphans will close on May 19, 2013
In the much-publicized fracas over “Orphans,” when Shia LaBeouf was fired after clashing with co-star Alec Baldwin and replaced by Ben Foster, the one actor in the cast barely mentioned was Tom Sturridge. Sturridge’s performance turns out to be the best reason to see the first Broadway production of Lyle Kessler’s 30-year-old play about the confrontation between two brothers and a fatherly Chicago gangster.
Sturridge plays Phillip, the younger brother of Treat (Ben Foster), orphans who live in a run-down row house in North Philadelphia. Treat is a violent petty criminal who supports the two of them by holding up people with a switchblade. Phillip never leaves the house, because Treat has told him that his allergies will kick in and he’ll die. In truth, Treat is keeping Phillip as little more than his prisoner.
Phillip spends his day hiding in the closet with their dead mother’s clothing, or watching television and memorizing the brand name products, or looking out the window at passersby. When the play begins, we see him in the darkened living room, leaping from couch to stairs to ledge like a cat. When Treat comes home after a day of petty thievery, Phillip mimics the people he’s seen out the window, imitating the way they stride or stroll or hop quickly on tip-toe like a cartoon character.
It is a masterful physical performance – funny and touching, and slightly reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” – mentally incapacitated, but more open than the average person to the everyday wonders of the world. Phillip repeats words like “bouillabaisse” as if he’s tasting the word, not just the soup.
One day, Treat brings home Harold, an older drunk man (Baldwin), who wears expensive clothing and carries an executive briefcase. It is Treat’s idea that he has kidnapped Harold, and will hold him for ransom, and so he ties him up. As it turns out, Harold is a gangster on the lam in Philadelphia, and he is actually the one in control.
A play that seems derived in equal parts from Sam Shepard’s violent Western-tinged dramas and Harold Pinter’s absurdist exercises in role reversal, “Orphans” ran for eight months Off-Broadway in 1985 after productions in L.A. and Chicago. It was then made into a 1987 movie starring Albert Finney and Matthew Modine. It continues to be performed theatrically with some frequency. It is a slight play, most charitably seen as a parable. It depends for its power on the intensity of the three performances.
There is nothing outright wrong with the acting by Alec Baldwin or Ben Foster, but neither turn in must-see portrayals. Baldwin handles his character’s comical philosophizing like a pro, a criminal Jack Donaghy (his character on “30 Rock”), although Harold could surely do with a greater sense of menace. Foster could probably do with a little less menace, or at least more variations of it. As Russell, Claire’s art-school classmate in “Six Feet Under,” Foster had a role that allowed a range of disturbing behavior. Foster’s Treat hides his hurts by playing the bully with little nuance. This is sometimes funny, more often too obvious. It is only in the second act when the circumstances change, and especially events expose Treat’s vulnerability, that Foster’s characterization becomes more varied and interesting, even moving. It’s not Foster’s fault that I several times started picturing what it would have been like for Shia LaBeouf to have played Treat in “Orphans.” I concluded it would probably not have made much difference, except that there might have been more adolescent girls in the audience.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
By Lyle Kessler
Directed by Daniel Sullivan, scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Pat Collins, sound design by Peter Fitzgerald
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, which includes a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $67.00 – $132.00
Orphans is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013