I liked this a great deal more than I expected! It’s no secret that I don’t care much for melodramatic plays full of straight boy attitude – I’m talking to you David Mamet and Neil LaBute! Of that sort of thing, I most enjoy Sam Shepard, who digs a lot deeper than the abovementioned duo; plus, his plays are filled with visual and literary images of great (and often somewhat mysterious) impact.
Lyle Kessler doesn’t dig as deep as Shepard in Orphans, but the play is more lucid and humane than anything I can think of from any of the authors I’ve mentioned. Plus, Kessler’s characters and plot are every bit as evocative and mysterious as Shepard’s imagery.
In Orphans, two orphaned brothers are living in a decrepit North Philadelphia house. Older brother Treat (Ben Foster) supports his “slow,” perhaps autistic younger sibling Philip (Tom Sturridge) by petty thievery, and is overprotective to the point of making Philip afraid of air from outside the house. One night Treat kidnaps a rich older man; Harold (Alec Baldwin) turns out to have his own motives and becomes the father figure the boys have always yearned for.
Baldwin is the money name here, and the whole production was his idea. This only confirms my feeling that Baldwin is quite a savvy theatre artist (though I wouldn’t take personal advice from the man for all the money in the world). Orphans is very much an ensemble piece, so you can’t say that Baldwin carries the show. True, the play really takes off after a gag is taken off Harold’s mouth, but that has more to do with smart structure on Kessler’s part that Baldwin’s admittedly considerable charisma.
Certainly the other two actors can more than stand up to Baldwin: Tom Sturridge’s Phillip makes up for in monkey-like agility and grace what he lacks in reasoning power, and Ben Foster has the right high-testoterone attitude for the angst-ridden Treat. Orphans is a fundamentally odd play, but oddly right for this exciting, energetic trio of actors.
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