Written by Lyle Kessler
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Original Music Composed by Tom Kitt
Location: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre 236 W. 45th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: John Lee Beatty, Lighting: Pat Collins, Costumes: Jess Goldstein, Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster, Tom Sturridge
Death of a Con Man
In the early 1980’s, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and others with a similar aesthetic, gave American theater a shot of testosterone it desperately needed at the time. Self-identified as “rock and roll theater”, Steppenwolf’s style was raw and confrontational, its narratives populated by virile, troubled archetypes. The language was rooted in the American lexicon, a poetry of the streets. Among their seminal works was Lyle Kessler’s three-character drama Orphans, which transferred from Chicago to off-Broadway and boosted the careers of actors John Mahoney, Kevin Anderson and (Steppenwolf co-founder) Terry Kinney.
Staging a revival of such a work poses certain challenges. It’s unlikely that the play one 1980’s critic called “shocking” and “profane” would have the same impact on jaded audiences of the new millennium. Moreover, the unique chemistry of the Steppenwolf cast would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. There is a fine line between true theatrical intensity and self-consciously actor-y machismo. Happily the current cast knows how to walk that line. Shrewdly, director Daniel Sullivan deviates from the Chicago Manual of Style and approaches the material with a light touch. Thanks to Sullivan’s sure hand and the expert timing of the cast, Orphans works well as a comedy, albeit a grim one.
In tone and structure, Kessler shows the influence of his contemporaries Sam Shepard and David Mamet, also important young playwrights in the 80’s (Shepard’s True West was another of Steppenwolf’s successes). But Kessler’s own quirky voice comes through clearly as well. The intriguing cadences of his dialogue and the unsettling innocence of his characters give the actors plenty to work with. The story takes place in a dilapidated house in North Philadelphia where brothers Treat (Ben Foster) and Phillip Tom (Sturridge), eke out a meager existence. With a vanished father and a deceased mother, the boys are forced to fend for themselves. Phillip is afflicted with some sort of mental condition (possibly autism), meaning Treat has to provide for the two of them. Armed with a switchblade, he roams the streets, robbing people of wristwatches, jewelry, and anything else he can sell to make sure there’s food on the table.
After a particularly productive day, Treat takes himself out a bar to celebrate. He comes home with Harold (Alec Baldwin) a well-dressed traveler who has bought him a few drinks and apparently mistaken him for someone he knows. Harold is blind drunk (or so it would appear), and after rhapsodizing about his childhood in an Illinois orphanage, he dozes off. Treat has no trouble tying Harold to a chair, taping his mouth and breaking into his briefcase. Here, Treat discovers a trove of financial paperwork and assumes he’s hit the jackpot. But his efforts to extract a ransom prove fruitless. The contacts found in Harold’s wallet have no interest in preserving his life, and would in fact relish the arrival of a severed digit. Worse, Harold, under Phillip’s unreliable watch, wriggles out of his bonds and soon has the house under his control. As it turns out, that’s not such a bad thing. Just as Treat’s knife proves no match for Harold’s pistol, his petty thuggery can’t hold a candle to Harold’s well-honed criminal expertise.
In the second act, a leather sofa appears in the grungy living room. Dirty jeans are exchanged for designer suits, tuna sandwiches replaced by gourmet meals. The house is, at last, a home. And Harold, the surrogate parent, nurtures and disciplines his wards. Treat enters what has now become the family business, but his impulsive nature forces Harold to continually teach object lessons in proper larcenous conduct. Phillip becomes more independent, no longer content to spend his days fearful of going outside and waiting for Treat to take the lead. Their newfound happiness is doomed to be short-lived, however, as Harold’s Chicago past catches up with him. In the resulting climax, childhood wounds are reopened, old coping mechanisms collapse, and the brothers are forced into a painful but necessary catharsis. For the most part, the twists and turns of the story feel both organic and surprising, and the limitations of the single-set drama are navigated with skill and ingenuity. The only lull occurs late in the second act, when Harold’s return is delayed and the two brothers are left alone to renegotiate their power dynamic.
Sullivan manages to mine the play’s comedic potential without undercutting the emotional authenticity of the performances. Nothing is cheated to the audience or overtly played for laughs. The humor arises from behavior, rather than witticism. Even Harold’s tinhorn eloquence resonates because of what he doesn’t say. It’s no surprise that Alec Baldwin, who has won two Emmy awards for comedy, has a keen sense of pace and subtext. What is less expected is the support he gets from the two younger members of the cast, both new to Broadway. Foster adroitly captures both the animalistic survivor and the fragile approval seeker that result from a parentless childhood. His deadpan delivery and some-one-else-is-driving eyes make him an ideal foil for Baldwin’s sinister paternalism. Some of the most heart-wrenching as well as the funniest moments arise from Sturridge’s flawlessly authentic guilelessness. His gently disarming unpredictability keeps his fellow actors, and the audience, delightfully on edge.
Their character arcs are enhanced John Lee Beatty’s seductively dingy set and Jess Goldstein’s mercurial costumes. Pat Collins’s lighting evokes a shadowy world of partially-hidden secrets ready to work their way into the light.