Lyle Kessler’s career has been pretty well defined by an early play of his, Orphans. There have been other plays, but nothing that created the stir that this one did. It’s been 30 years since its first production off-Broadway enjoyed a run of 285 performances with a cast featuring John Mahoney, Terry Kinney, and Kevin Anderson. It offers 3 actors very juicy roles, and Anderson and Mahoney received Obies for their efforts.
Now, on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre, it offers us Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge, and these three have once again lit the fire that help make this rough, raw very dark comedy light up the street on which it struts its stuff.
I recall being impressed with it in the original form, but I was even more involved this time out, for it seemed more relevant to me, even though I’ve never known the sort of creepy characters who inhabit it. Foster and Sturridge play Treat and Philip, two ravaged brothers, who have managed to survive, if barely, despite the death of their mother soon after younger Philip was born, and the defection of their father when the boys were still young.
Relevant because I couldn’t avoid the resemblance in some ways to the older/younger brothers who performed those terrible deeds at the Boston marathon those short weeks ago. Once again, we have siblings, and the pecking order is clear. Treat the elder, controls Philip, who is not permitted to leave their shabby home. Treat has convinced him that if he exposes himself to the pollution of the outside air, he will instantly choke and die. Treat is the breadwinner, suitable for little legitimate work, so he steals so they can eat.
The only exposure Philip has to outside influences is the black and white television set in front of which he sits constantly absorbing what might be called intellectual junk food. His diet consists of the latest products whose TV ads attract him. When we first meet them, in the living room of the rundown house in North Philadelphia that once housed them as a family, they are playful with each other, their roles are clearly defined, and both seem content with their lives. Treat is the caretaker, Philip the Peter Pan who has been encouraged by his brother to remain a boy forever.
One night Treat brings home an older gentleman, Harold, who is thoroughly drunk, and babbling. He is well dressed, and Treat ties him to a chair, binds him so he can extract money from him when he comes back to sobriety. But Harold has other plans.
The play was written in 1983, and this revival is set “somewhere in the not too distant past.” In other words, the ’80s. It offers little in the way of plot, but it does take us on a journey over a period of months in which power shifts from one to the other, as Harold takes on the role of Dad to both young men, and in so doing, opens doors for Philip that had been shut for a lifetime.
A spoiler alert prevents me from telling you much, for as I’ve said, there isn’t much story, and a hint would reveal all. Suffice it to say, it is ultimately a character study, and though Kessler manipulates his people, and leaves unanswered a number of niggling questions about how the boys survived with no visible means of support except Treat’s not very large talents as a thief, his writing is vivid enough to allow us to suspend disbelief.
In not giving us much of a back story with any detail, the play joins others of its ilk from the early ’80s. Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane comes to mind, as does Harold Pinter’s mysterious Homecoming, plays dealing with liasons, alliances and families. Martin McDonagh , in his Leenane Trilogy, is another writer of the period who shows us how a playwright with imagination and talent can evoke hearty laughter from the most macabre and seedy situations. These plays require acting of the highest order, and under Daniel Sullivan’s experience and gifted hand, that’s just what we get in Orphans.
Alec Baldwin is the most prominent name in the cast, and he delivers a “Harold” that combines macho control with evident need to nourish, which makes him a formidable and successful father figure. Ben Foster’s “Treat” is a tightly coiled cobra ready to strike with almost no provocation, so filled with rage is he. His role as guardian of his dependent brother is the only part of his life that brings him genuine pleasure. When Philip reverses roles with him, his world collapses, and Foster and Sturridge’s final scene is powerful, brave and very moving.
Orphans is not for everyone. It’s a good idea to know what you’re in for before signing up to see it. But you won’t find a better production of it, nor will you find a better ensemble of three on the boards at the moment, and if you don’t mind murky waters, you’ll find much to munch on in this very dark tragicomedy.
Orphans is onstage thru June 30, 2103 at The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:
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