'Orphans' Theater Review: Kessler's harrowing play

Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge turn in riveting perfs in incisive play revival

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.

Orphans

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theater; 1,079 seats; $132 top) 

A  Frederick Zollo, Robert Cole, the Shubert Organization, Orin Wolf, Lucky VIII, Scott M. Delman, James P. MacGilvray, and Stylesfour Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Lyle Kessler. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Pat Collins; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; original music, Tom Kitt; fight direction, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Opened April 18, 2013. Reviewed April 13. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

With: Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster, Alec Baldwin

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