Any Broadway show has much to live up to: burgeoning production costs; audience hopes inflated by high ticket prices; competition from film, television, and the dozens of other shows glutting Times Square. But Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, now revived at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, carries an especially high burden. Can this 1983 three-hander possibly prove more dramatic than the imbroglio that marred its rehearsal process?
Well, not quite. Orphans is Kessler’s best-known play, and its eccentric characters and meaty speeches have long attracted actors. Set in a decrepit North Philadelphia home, it concerns young adult brothers Treat (Ben Foster) and Philip (Tom Sturridge). (Incidentally, they look nothing alike.) While Philip, victim to a host of psychological maladies, passes his days gorging on mayonnaise and launching himself from one moldering piece of furniture to the next, Treat takes to petty theft to keep the household afloat. Circumstances alter when Treat drags home sozzled businessman Harold (Alec Baldwin), with thoughts of holding him for ransom. But once he’s loosed his bonds, Harold, a former orphan, decides to stay and care for these youngsters.
This revival attracted particular notice when producers and director Daniel Sullivan (perhaps too gentlemanly for this material) asked movie star Shia LaBeouf to withdraw and hired Foster in his place. LaBeouf took his beef to social media, posting several Twitter rants and making public private e-mails from Sullivan and Baldwin. Several of those tweets (apparently borrowed from an Esquire article) concerned what it takes to be a man, which is in many ways the subject of Orphans.
But while its three roles–which resemble assemblages of speech patterns and tics more than they do credible characters–will appeal to actors, the play (unlike the tweets) doesn’t offer much innovation or insight into the power dynamics among men. Kessler’s style seems less his own than a pastiche of other (and perhaps rather better) plays and writers. The script can read like Pinter, if someone went through and deleted all the pauses, or like Orton, if you left all that sex subtextual. Harold has a tendency to draw the young men to him for friendly squeezes of the shoulder. “Come over here, son,” says Harold again and again. “I want to give you some encouragement.”
Yet, encouragingly, the actors have all clearly embraced their roles. Baldwin brings his fleshy elegance to the role of Harold and renders his choice to serve as pater familias very nearly believable. Sturridge seems utterly committed to Philip’s unclassifiable and improbable collection of traits and phobias. And he is a deft hand at domestic parkour. Though Foster seems tense and ill at ease for much of the play, he is clearly readying himself for his character’s outburst of grief in the final scene. With time he should relax, and make more of what Harold calls this “real tragic situation I’ve wandered into.”