This Little Bastard Is Changing My Life!

“You’re my kidnap victim!” shrieks the hot-blooded Treat (Ben Forster) halfway into Lyle Kessler’s Orphans.  He is addressing Harold (Alec Baldwin), a big-time Chicago gangster who spent the previous scene casually untying the knots around his wrists while chatting with Treat’s younger, retarded brother, Phillip (Tom Sturridge), about Houdini—a “Yiddisha boy … don’t let the Italian flavor fool you.”  For years, Treat has taken care of Phillip by keeping him locked up at home while he commits petty crimes for grocery cash; Treat has convinced Phillip that the latter suffers from a medley of deadly allergies (grass, trees, air), he has convinced him that he could not survive without him in order to avoid admitting that it is in fact the other way around.  Treat, used to being in control, is a semi-functional, anti-social tough guy, unable to confront the fact that his disabled younger brother is in fact far more socially adept, more emotionally stable than he.

But then Harold shows up, obsessed with The Dead End Kids and determined to reform both Phillip and Treat.  He grew up in an orphanage and, perhaps suspecting that his life of crime cannot endure much longer, wants to become a father figure to the two kids, consistently addressing both as “son.”  This is, of course, after Treat fails to kidnap, rob, or ransom him.  Harold has an affable confidence; he is endlessly belting out pleasant aphorisms, whether he is sipping on a whiskey and water or staring at the end of a knife.  “Treat’s got a violent temper,” Phillip warns him early on.  “I love violent tempers!” Harold declares, ready to face any challenge with the indefatigable gumption of a newspaper boy turned tycoon.

It should be obvious why Mr. Baldwin would be attracted to Harold, a more complex and funnier version of the 30 Rock character that has revived his career.  He gives a virtuosic performance, commanding both the audience and his two onstage listeners with a delicious, earthy voice that imbues pithy remarks with a sense of esotericism; we would like nothing more than to sit at his feet and watch as he sips manly drinks and spouts wisdom.  Mr. Foster and Mr. Sturridge, however, sag in their roles—Mr. Foster lacks the violence that gives Treat power in some situations, while Mr. Sturridge condescends to Phillip; leaping around the house like a caged monkey and speaking his lines with a much too emphasized impediment, he plays the part like a movie star who equates retardation with Oscar.  These brothers are suffocating each other with their love, and yet their scenes never reach the level of emotional tension that is suggested in Mr. Kessler’s script.  Like the characters they play, the two actors require Mr. Baldwin’s presence for anything interesting to happen.

Still, Orphans is a respectable revival, with a decent script and one fantastic performance.  At a moment when Broadway seems to be reaching for little higher than passably average, this may be one of the better shows running on the Great White Way.

Orphans runs through May 19th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  236 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 45 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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