Harold, the middle-aged businessman played by Alec Baldwin in the unexciting Broadway revival of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, strives to exert a civilising influence on Phillip and Treat, brothers who live in a rubbishy house in North Philadelphia. Though Treat, a knife-wielding thief, has brought Harold home drunk, tied him up, and attempted to shake him down, Harold repays the kidnapping not with retaliation but with kindness. He buys the young men new clothing, brightens their furnishings, and attempts to dispense the kind of fatherly advice that he, an orphan, never received.
Something of a similar smoothing has occurred in this production directed by Daniel Sullivan. When Kessler’s drama arrived off-Broadway in 1985, after a premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, it struck audiences and critics as extraordinarily kinetic. It showcased Steppenwolf’s ability to incubate high-energy talent: as the brothers, Kevin Anderson and Terry Kinney solidified their reputations, and John Mahoney, as Harold, was a revelation. The characters, especially the monkeyish, leaping Anderson, were literally bouncing off walls.
On Broadway in 2013, Orphans is not so much menacing as meagre. A larger, Broadway stage has robbed the two-act work of its claustrophobic thrills. One is left, for much of the evening, to tote up the influences: the down-and-out-brother motif suggests Sam Shepard’s True West, and the creepy role reversals practically scream Harold Pinter.
The actors provide us with most of the production’s scattered pleasures. Tom Sturridge wrings laughs from Phillip’s every dazed discovery. This mentally off-beat character has been confined to the house, ostensibly for reasons of allergy. Ben Foster, who has built a unique film record ever since making a splash in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, gives Treat tremendous swagger. The brothers suggest Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, to which Kessler obliquely alludes.
The role of Harold exposes Baldwin’s limitations as an actor. The character does allow him to show off his gift for fast-talking Irish blarney, in a more working-class way than his awards-strewn portrayal in TV’s 30 Rock of media executive Jack Donaghy. But too much of Baldwin’s charm relies on our acknowledging that he’s the smartest guy in the room. And once that charm is exhausted, and he is, as Harold, required to mine more unsettling emotions, he doesn’t come up with much that’s substantial.