Accustomed to Mamet and Letts and The Usual Suspects, a story of three men, particularly one that begins with a kidnapping, holds certain expectations. I expect double-crossing, complex business interactions, ruthlessness and every man out for himself. Lyle Kessler’s Orphans shatters these preconceived notions of the genre. The language and the violence are there, but the characters need and help one another. I kept waiting for that seemingly inevitable moment when one of these characters I was beginning to care so much about would do something irrevocable to another, for which I would never be able to forgive them. The opportunities for this were there, but, to my immense relief, it never happened. Instead, we are presented with a beautiful portrayal of relationships, paternal and brotherly. There is something almost revolutionary about the simplicity and honesty of Orphans.
Treat and Phillip, two orphaned brothers in their twenties, live in a ramshackle house in Philadelphia. Younger brother Phillip bounds ape-like about the house, jumping on furniture, watching a tiny TV, gazing out the window (according to Treat, he’s not allowed to go outside due to deadly allergies) and eating his standard meal of Starkist Tuna and Hellman’s mayonnaise. Phillip is sweet and good natured and appears to have some sort of undefined mental disorder. Big brother Treat is a ruffian and petty thief, stealing what he needs to take care of Phillip. And then one day, Treat hits the jackpot, or so he thinks, when he meets wealthy Harold at a bar. Treat brings the inebriated Harold – and his briefcase full of stocks and bonds – home and promptly ties his hostage up. The next day, Treat goes out to try to collect a ransom for Harold, entrusting Phillip to guard the captive. Harold dexterously frees himself, but instead of running, he stays and waits for Treat to come home. Harold himself grew up in an orphanage and has a fascination with these “dead-end kids”.
Alec Baldwin is charismatic, fun, dignified and utterly delightful as Harold. At intermission, a person behind me commented that his performance felt very theatrical, but I would have to argue that this is a deliberate and well-founded choice. Harold is not actually a father or a mentor, but is instead taking on that role as he plays Henry Higgins to Phillip/Treats Eliza Doolittle. He is creating his combination boss-father-teacher role in front of us and takes an infectious pleasure in creating this persona. Ben Foster’s Treat is complex and exquisitely acted as he plays this young man who was forced at such an early age to survive on his own, lovingly caring for his younger brother whilst full of anger and confusion. Foster steers clear of stereotypes and delivers an incredibly brave and open performance. Tom Sturridge’s Phillip, reminiscent of Kaspar Hauser, surges with energy, warmth and naiveté.
Stanislavsky advised that when playing a villain, you bring out what is good in them, and vice-versa. The nuance and honesty in the performances of Orphans does just that – Sturridge finds and highlights the intelligence of special needs Phillip, Foster brings out the vulnerability of tough guy Treats, while Baldwin finds the gentleness in a Chicago gangster. Director Daniel Sullivan keeps the action moving at a quick pace and tells the story clearly, interestingly and powerfully. John Lee Beatty’s living room set, with just the glimpse of an upstairs (so we can see people’s feet and the base of a bed post) serves the action well, particularly when Phillip swings himself down the stairs and jumps about from table to chairs to sofa.
Rarely are male relationships (brother-brother, father-son, employer-employee) depicted with such honesty and openness and Lyle Kessler has managed to write a play that is exciting and gripping and full of action, while being simple, subtle and moving.