Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 18, 2013
Orphans 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. Original music composed by Tom Kitt. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster, Tom Sturridge.
What has brought this being, named Phillip and played by Tom Sturridge, to this point, what will lift him out from it, and what may very well shove him back into it again, is the subject, the fuel, and even the title of Lyle Kessler's 1985 play. Phillip, unsurprisingly, has not had a mature, civilizing influence through most of his life. Though he's afflicted, it seems, by some sort of mental disorder that's led him to build his consciousness, his diet, and his vocabulary from television commercials and Errol Flynn films, he is capable of growing when presented with the kinds of chances he rarely receives.
He can, in other words, be trained. And he's spent much of his life under the oppressively guiding tutelage of his older brother, Treat, who hasn't known better than to stoke Phillip's delusions and feed him new ones as the need arises. So when a true authority figure, a Chicago mobster type named Harold (Alec Baldwin), walks into Phillip's life and home, escorted by a Treat (Ben Foster) who has mistakenly pegged the man as an easy mark, it's a matter of time until the requisite battle of wills commences.
Once it does, Orphans burns brightly — for a while. Director Daniel Sullivan has staged events skillfully enough so that seeing how the three men relate to each other across the generations, bonding well enough over the chief experience they share (Harold grew up in an orphanage), can at times be startling and even gripping. This is rarely more true than during a late-show sequence in which Harold instructs a willing Treat in the nuances of controlling his emotions, a must for any bodyguard, by reenacting a recent tense bus ride that could easily have ended in violence and blood. But there are moments throughout that hint at the sparkling opportunities of the premise and the script on which it's built.
Kessler's play, however, is dependent not on individually smoldering embers but rather a continuous crackle that can convincingly flare in the evening's climax. On its own, it's not a stunning piece of writing; most of its setups, twists, and reconfigurations are obvious, and much of the dialogue possesses the general guttural oomph of Peter Shaffer, John Osborne, or Sam Shepard at their darkest but without the melodic undertones or poetic sensibility that sets those writers' work apart. So it becomes even more important for an underlying earthiness to anchor its meaning.
Hence the caged beasts Sullivan has unleashed on John Lee Beatty's burned-out living room set — though, alas, some zoo attendant has been a bit too friendly with the tranquilizers. This shows up most notably, and unexpectedly, in Sturridge's performance. Despite his movements being lithe and occasionally Olympics-level acrobatic, and his voice echoing with the sound of a man trapped in a boy's mind, Phillip lacks the intense focus required to justify his animalistic behavior. Because you don't sense his spiritual need for release, the character acquires an airy quality that may lend Act II a haunting ethereality, but doesn't contribute to your understanding of him or anything else.
Baldwin has stripped Harold of his innate primal qualities, which is the right approach for embodying a man who escaped a low-class gutter only to end up in a higher-caliber one. But he's scrubbed too hard: Barely a trace of the one-time monster remains in his portrayal, so you don't believe, as you pretty much have to, that he is who he says he is, or is capable of accomplishing what he claims he can. A mechanical, almost mannered, line delivery absent of baritonal grit does not help Baldwin locate the gravitas he needs, but little he does lets you accept Harold's story. The character's various pivots, from victim to predator, from a kidnapped man to an employer who wants to hire Treat and Phillip, simply don't ring true.
None of that is true of Treat. Though Foster, perhaps best known for his role as gang tough Charlie Prince in the film 3:10 to Yuma, indirectly made headlines when he replaced Shia LaBeouf during rehearsals (the ever-popular "creative differences" were cited as the reason), he legitimately triumphs in the role.
He does this by outlining what bridges Phillips' adolescence and Harold's maturity. Foster demonstrates at his first appearance how much Treat is struggling in his role as father, framing his instinct to coddle and suffocate within the nature of inexperience. But when Harold forces (or perhaps just enables) Treat to grow up, he's just as unable to abandon his predilections toward hot-headed problem solving. His first appearance in a suit, rather than in ripped jeans and a sweat shirt (the costumes are by Jess Goldstein) reveals someone who's both ready to dive into manhood and yet unsure how to get there.
These warring forces energize the play. They manifest themselves in Foster's limber but guarded physicality; his voice, a dull rumble of a whine with an overtone of confidence just waiting to be developed; and his face, which alternates, seemingly at will, between overstuffed acceptance of his lot, and the gaunt realization that he can and should have better, even though he's powerless to bring it about on his own. At once heavy and buoyant, boisterous and deflated, and sensual and repressed, Foster's Treat is a masterful creation that ranks as among the finest Broadway has seen this season.
Foster conveys, above all else, the tragedy at the play's heart: that great things are possible for him, or for anyone, if only there's someone around to nurture it — which, all too frequently, there is not. Except when Foster is onstage, presiding over an infinite realm of possibilities, that's exactly the same tragedy of this Orphans.