Is “Orphans” Just Another Dead-End Play?

Alec Baldwin has a commanding presence: when he speaks, you can’t help but listen. Hell, even gagged and tied to a chair, as he finds himself in this revival of Lyle Kessler’s 1983 Orphans, the man commands a magical sense of respect. No surprise, then, that he soon Houdinis himself out of his bonds, much to the delighted marvel of the simple and cat-like Phillip (Tom Sturridge) who has been dutifully following the instructions of his rough brother Treat (Ben Foster) to watch their kidnapped victim. Not much of a shock, either, that Baldwin’s character, Harold, is so supremely confident that he shows little interest in escaping: instead, he appears to want to help them better their lives, turning them around as he once turned his own life around, giving them purpose and motivation as he takes on the pair as accomplices, refurbishing their run-down, tuna-filled apartment and introducing them to tasteful three-piece suits, comfortable and lace-less loafers, and bouillabaisse. “Let me give you some encouragement,” he says, doting on the two with a stern yet fatherly squeeze of the shoulders.

The real shock is two-fold then: first, Baldwin’s on-stage presence is by far the least impressive of the trio. Foster’s Treat is so tightly wound that at one point he literally passes out while trying to suppress his violent sense of justice; though he beams with real satisfaction in his work and takes pride in his survival-based accomplishments, you can feel the mental scars that cause him to hold back with a constant wariness and suspicion, forever keeping love and other potentially enervating emotions at bay. Meanwhile, Sturridge’s portrayal of Phillip is an exuberant revelation: though he’s been pent up and uneducated beyond reruns of The Price is Right and every Errol Flynn film, he’s filled with boundless energy (watch him leap across the tops of furniture) and a fearless curiosity as he innocently attempts to learn new things–escaping the closet of their dead mother’s clothing that he’s spent so much time hiding within, moving beyond the simple pleasures of Hellman’s mayonnaise and the company of red-shoe-wearing phantoms. More importantly, however, is that despite this dearth of theatrical talent, these characters still fail to fill the cavernous spaces of set designer John Lee Beatty’s two-story home; they cannot overcome the creakiness of Kessler’s writing, no matter how snazzily Jess Goldstein might dress them up. It’d be easy to lay the blame at director Daniel Sullivan’s feet, but after a rather droll two hours with these characters, he achieves a moment of such raw, intense emotion between Sturridge and Foster that it’s clear that everybody’s at least grappling with real substance here, even if the end result simply continues to plotlessly glance off it.

Never before have such strong performances felt so ultimately befuddling, and for that uncanny sensation alone, you might consider checking out Orphans. At the very least, let’s get these kids a better home: I can hear True West calling.

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