The threat of violence hovers in the air at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Lyle Kessler’s Orphans is in production. Directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Alec Baldwin and the excellent duo of Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge, this play is crackling with the threat of danger, both physical and emotional.
Kessler’s play explores the lives of brothers Phillip (Sturridge) and Treat (Foster), who live in a decrepit house in Northern Philadelphia. (John Lee Beaty designed the crumbling, faded set of their home.) Abandoned by their parents, the young men live alone, with the possibly autistic Phillip remaining in the house all day while Treat supports them by mugging people at knifepoint. The brothers’ lifestyle is thrown into shock when Treat brings home the drunken Harold, a wealthy Chicago businessman carrying a briefcase filled with stocks, and attempts to kidnap him. Harold turns the tables on Treat by instead hiring him as his bodyguard and attempting to guide the young men into a better life.
Harold quickly becomes a father-figure to both young men, encouraging Phillip to explore outside of the house (he remains inside all day and night, having been told by Treat he will die of an allergy attack if he breathes the outside air) and attempting to teach Treat how to control his violent temper.
The power struggle between Treat and Harold is the core of the conflict in Orphans, and understanding Treat’s desperate hold on control is crucial to understanding this conflict. Foster gives an outstanding performance as Treat, capably portraying both the adult responsibilities he took on prematurely while also depicting the fierce, childlike attachment he has to his brother and his need for affirmation and approval from Harold. After describing to Harold how he wanted to pull a gun on an obnoxious man on the bus, Treat becomes so startled and frightened by his own emotions that he runs from the house, disappearing for hours. The fear and desperation Foster brings to this scene is admirable and even a bit frightening.
Sturridge is equally impressive as Phillip, giving an honest and energetic portrayal of the young man. Rather than walk, he jumps from one piece of furniture to the other, leaping with agility over banisters and in and out of rooms, resembling the caged animal that he has lived his life as. He also finds some genuinely funny moments in his character but this comedy does not come at the expense of his developmental difficulties; instead he portrays Phillip as a truly funny guy. His curiosity and desire to know the outside world, and his growing confidence resulting from Harold’s guidance, is honest and genuine and wonderful to witness.
Baldwin is well-suited to Harold’s more gentle side, including the affection he has for Treat and Phillip; after all, as he tells them, he was an orphan himself once. And Baldwin’s naturally affluent air is especially well-suited to Harold’s unexplained philosophy and education (he references Houdini when he unties the ropes Treat tied him with and he happily serves Phillip bouillabaisse for dinner rather than Phillip’s usual meal of canned tuna and mayonnaise). But he never registers as a truly dangerous man or actual criminal, and people chuckled rather than shuddered when he stated calmly, “I love violent tempers,” and “I adore violent men.” The darker edge of Harold is necessary for his struggle with Treat, and Treat’s violent responses, to be believable.
Some parts of Orphans are not completely satisfying; I found a few aspects of the script to be frustratingly unexplained. But thanks to the superb performances by Sturridge and Foster, this story left me shaken and deeply moved.