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A CurtainUp Review

"You just needed a little encouragement."— Harold to Phillip who, though more than receptive, is afraid to count his brother's anti-touch rule to shake Harold's hand which prompts Harold's comment that it would be a shame if he could never put an arm around Phillip's shoulder and give them "an encouraging squeeze.

Alec Baldwin (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Any mention of fairy godmothers is more likely to evoke a vision of the one who took Cinderella out of her dismal surroundings than the gangster character in Lyle Kessler's Orphans. Yet Harold, a middle-aged gangster, who is himself an orphan, does indeed bring a fairy godmother touch into the dismal, unnurtured lives of two orphaned brothers, a petty thief with a childlike brother whose caretaker he's been since they were orphaned when they were very young..

Though the 1983 play has had many productions all over the world and was made into a film, it's never been on Broadway (It did have a successful run at the Westside Theater but that dates back to 1985, pre-curtainup).

The cliche "better late than never" certainly applies to the belated Broadway production of Orphans. It's a play that not only enthralls from start to finish, but stays with you long after you leave the theater. Best of all, the three orphans on the Gerald Schoenfeld stage are outstandingly portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge.

Baldwin has a big enough fan base to prompt a round of applause when he first appears on stage. But, while that kind of applause is annoying and distracting, his performance is truly applause worthy. He's right on the mark as Harold, the Chicago gangster on the run with a briefcase full of money and securities. Persuasively and with great humor (perhaps a little too much so) he demonstrates the slick, authoritative charm with which Harold turns Treat's kidnap scheme to his own advantage. He is equally convincing and slyly hilarious as we watch his con man act on the urge to play dad to the love and affection deprived counterpart of his own Dead End kid youth.

But this isn't a one-pony success. Foster and Sturridge make this as a trifecta — Foster as the thuggish Treat and Sturridge as Phillip, the child-man who amazes with his panther's agility and touches us with his his powers of observation and untapped intelligence. Add Daniel Sullivan's astute balancing of humor and horror, good and evil, plus and the splendid work of his designers, to support my don't miss it recommendation

Kessler's play might be seen as a tribute to Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter, but don't be fooled by the grungy setting and darkly comic yet ominous plot developments. Though there's a particularly strong kinship with Pinter's The Caretaker in which a mysterious stranger takes over the dingy home of two dysfunctional brothers (there's even a variation of Pinter's funny shoe bit via a pair of yellow loafers bought by Harold for a delighted Phillip), Orphans is not a realistic play to be taken at face value. Essentially, this is an absurdist fable with a darkly realistic edge. Harold's Houdini-ish ability to free himself from being tied up, his culinary skills. . .this simply isn't how gangsters behave, which leaves us wondering just how the playwright intended us to think about Harold's character.

While hardly a good guy, Harold is less menacing than The Caretaker's Davies. He's not a bum but well dressed, apparently rich and smart. It's not all that surprising that he's soon in charge of the brothers and the decaying North Philly row house where they've managed to survive on the older brother's petty stree thievery. John Lee Beatty who often creates enviably elegant interiors is also masterful at depicting finely detailed grunge. a

Treat's parenting has taken the form of keeping his younger brother confined to the depressingly shabby house, unschooled, with television his only connection to the outside world. Though he indulges Phillip' taste for Starkist tuna and mayonnaise by the spoonful he hasn't bothere to teach him simple skills like tying his shoe laces.

While Phillip isn't literally shackled, Treat has convinced him that a childhood asthmatic attack would kill him if he ventured outside. The shabby house has thus become a jungle and in which Phillip's pentup energy has turned him into an animalistic 18 or 19-year old who leaps up and down the rickety staircase and furniture. Phillip is the character who undergoes the greatest change and Sturridge, is as moving as he is amazing in what is the play's showiest role.

Baldwin's Harold enters this self-imposed prison when he's drunk and Treat has brought him home. Treat's initial usual small time wallet theft turns into a kidnapping scheme that the crafty gangster turns on its head. Even if you've seen the play and know what follows in the second act, there's enormous pleasure in watching this stellar threesome depict the shifting relationships and the way everything is supported by the scenery, costumes and incidental music.

Too bad some thoughtful welfare worker didn't discover Treat and Phillip's forlorn existence and find a home where they could have had the kind of love and affection everyone needs. But then we wouldn't have this gift for three fine actors and audiences hungry for two hours of riveting theater.

Orphans by Lyle Kessler
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Alec Baldwin (Harold), Ben Foster(Treat), Tom Sturridge (Phillip)
Running Time: 2 hours including 1 intermission
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Costume Design:Jess Goldstein
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Original Music: Tom Kitt
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre 236 West 45th Street 212/239-6200>
From 3/26/13; opening 4/18/13; closing 6/30/13.
@7pm, Wednesday - Saturday @8pm Wednesday and Saturday @2pm Sunday @3pm.
Tickets, $67 - $132.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 16th press preview
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