This is one that will make you sit up and take notice. Don’t get too comfortable because Lyle Kessler is the kind of writer who likes to move the furniture around – and I’m not just talking about the pieces onstage. I’m talking about the furniture between your two ears.
This is a play that gives you the willies at the start. In a house that looks like characters from a Harold Pinter play just moved out, Phillip (Tom Sturridge), a 20-somethnig slightly unkempt man, appears more feral than human as he prowls the premises. He pounces and glides from pillar to post – literally. The grey outdoors beckons to him, but he doesn’t open the unlocked windows or even mess with the locked door.
Soon his brother Treat (Ben Foster) swans in bearing the rewards from a day’s worth of pick pocketing that included a bit of mugging on the side. Treat is the provider and Phillip is the prisoner. It is a package deal. The two brothers are grown orphans. Treat has told Phillip that the outside world is dangerous for a man with limited abilities – Phillip appears autistic – so he must not leave the house. Treat will provide everything. We never really find out why, and we never find out why two boys were allowed to grow up alone without anyone noticing, which is a drag, but we go along for the ride. The place is piled high with empty tuna cans and the Hellman’s mayo bottle is empty. The books Phillip has been reading have been hidden under the sofa cushions with the old newspapers where he has underlined the words. All is unsettled and SOP.
Into this world is dragged Harold (Alec Baldwin) who is drunk to the point of near incoherence. When Treat opens Harold’s briefcase and find securities, the next logical step is to take him hostage and see what he can get for him. Harold is tied to a chair, gagged (very bad prop design there) and left with Phillip who is told, “Don’t Touch Him” while Treat goes off to see what the ransom market will bring.
Turns out it doesn’t bring much. And while Treat is gone Harold not only comes to, he wiggles out of his chair and into control. This is a marvelous thing to watch for Phillip who, as his brother instructed, never touches Harold.
Once the power has shifted, the furniture changes, and the gastronomic offerings ratcheted up a few pegs, the play careens off down an entirely unexpected trail. It does become predictable, however, as the stranger in town upsets the applecart. Treat is no longer the alpha dog and this ultimately becomes more than he can handle. Turns out he is not the only brother with a few loose sandwiches in the picnic basket.
This is an improbable tale. As a matter of fact it is total fantasy. But then there are a lot of them out there. You park your butt in the chair and say, “Take me away.” And if the author gets you, and the director steers you, and the actors convince you, then who cares where you go? Not me.
I can’t put my finger on all the parts that worked or didn’t. Certainly Tom Sturridge is the man who has his finger on the pulse of the story, because that pulse is his. It is Phillip’s transformation that we measure one centimeter at a time. It is he who moves from prisoner to pioneer. Harold and Treat orbit him.
With Sturridge in the lead, Baldwin and Foster find their footing, and the three of them plunge deep into the well of human frailty and fear, strength and hope, adventure and daring. This one will stay with you.
"Dispiritingly pallid show."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"A modest and contrived play, .., an entertaining production."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Its darkly comic side has taken over."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"When I saw the original Off-Broadway production of Lyle Kessler’s 'Orphans' back in 1985, I found the play to be a tiresome mix of pilfered Pinter and stolen Shepard, ... Nearly 30 years later the play is getting its Broadway debut, but time hasn’t altered my assessment. 'Orphans' remains as synthetic as ever"
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Under Daniel Sullivan's sharp, decisive direction, the brief play moves swiftly and assuredly."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A Broadway premiere that is too timid and tidy to raise the pulse or bulk up the material's thinness."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"For the greater part, 'Orphans' certainly delivers."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"The descent from black comedy into tragedy [is] a bracing theatrical thrill ride."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Acquires unexpected emotional nuance under Daniel Sullivan’s incisive helming. And there’s plenty of high voltage in the electrifying ensemble."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...