04/19/2013 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

'Orphans': Bring Back Albert Finney


Overwrought and odd, the Broadway revival of Orphans, a 1985 off-Broadway play by Lyle Kessler that was overrated by a lot of otherwise intelligent people, including director Alan J. Pakula, who turned it into a 1987 movie with Albert Finney, has gained nothing from time passed. If anything, it is odder and more inconsequential than ever. But it still attracts actors, including the trio at center stage of the current production, led by the inexhaustible Alec Baldwin.

This is the one about male bonding between two feral brothers, living alone since childhood in an abandoned house in North Philadelphia, and a derelict they tie up as a potential kidnap victim who turns the tables by taking over their lives, their home and their wacko values by assuming the role of a fairy godfather/surrogate patriarch. Treat (Ben Foster) is the aggressive older sibling, a petty thief who grifts, robs and knifes innocent strangers to provide for his younger brother Phillip (Tom Sturridge), an idiot savant and terrified recluse who believes he's allergic to everything outside the front door, including sun, air and grass, and lives on an unwavering diet of canned tuna slathered with heaps of Hellman's mayonnaise. Mentally challenged, Phillip spends his days alone in the house, watching game shows and old movies on TV, crouching like a human arachnid, leaping from the worn-out sofa to the windowsill, and landing on every surface for only a microsecond, like a spastic fly. Treat is a self-styled Robin Hood who steals to feed his dependent kid brother, while Phillip seems content to live outside the perimeters of civilization. They exist, unsupervised, as playmates in a game of hide-and-seek.

One night, Treat brings home a middle-aged drunk named Harold who he naively believes to be an easy mark, but instead turns out to be a Chicago gangster, on the lam from killers and cops, with a briefcase full of money. Harold turns out to be both their salvation and downfall. The boys are amateur thugs. Harold is a pro. Once an orphan himself, he sympathizes with their situation and appoints himself their savior -- first winning Phillip's confidence with a pair of yellow loafers, then breaking down Treat's resistance by promising him important assignments as his personal bodyguard with expensive suits, fancy women and benefits. When the curtain rises on Act Two, Harold's powerful influence has transformed the house as well as the boys' wardrobe and grooming. Clearly the roles have reversed. Phillip has gained new confidence by going outdoors to cure his imaginary allergies and to the anger and resentment of his brother is reading books instead of watching TV re-runs. Treat is now reliant on Harold for advice and income and the hope of a materialistic future. Each character is still an orphan, but assumes full meaning only in relation to the other two. By the time Harold is fatally gunned down by another gangster, it is obvious that the newly empowered Phillip will take control and nurse Treat through the emotional breakdown that follows, just as the curtain falls.

This is thin stuff, made palpable by claustrophobic scenic design, and all dressed up to go dancing by an impressive trio of actors. This is good, because playwright Kessler writes for the actors, not the audience. His story, a parable about role reversal and dysfunctional parenting even among criminals, goes nowhere, but it features three hammy parts for skilled performers with enough technique to make up for a lack of truth in the writing. Unaccustomed as I am to seeing Alec Baldwin in anything other than comedy, I must admit I found him spellbinding even when his scripts seem to be taking place on another planet far removed from reality. He holds attention with a minimum of fuss. Ben Foster, on the other hand, comes from a long line of scripts about neurotic misfits, addicts and villains, but is too reserved for comfort as Treat, the live wire whose perpetual rage makes even his casual movements potential acts of violence. Mr. Foster, who was scarier in the TV series "Six Feet Under", isn't very threatening onstage. This leaves the remarkable young British actor Tom Sturridge to pretty much steal the show. He jumps, jerks, crawls, scales a staircase, climbs walls like Spider-Man, and swings like a monkey through the detritus of the house in a series of contorted agonies that keep the spectator frozen with awe. Even when he isn't muttering and slobbering, he makes use of every digit, rotating toes and playing silent musical notes with distorted fingers. I hope this show keeps a chiropractor on staff. Veteran director Dan Sullivan whips together the emotional dynamics of three very different actors to form a balancing act that shapes a disappointing Orphans into an evening that is watchable but hardly memorable.

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