Alec Baldwin is combative in 'Orphans,' onstage and off

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NEW YORK -- Life informs art, art enhances life. But sometimes the real world can get in the way, as with the Broadway revival of "Orphans," where offstage turbulence has distracted attention from the play itself.

Broadway always has been a fishbowl, but the viral media have geometrically increased its visibility. The first fuss about this revival of Lyle Kessler's play, made famous in 1985 by Steppenwolf Theatre, was about a late replacement of one member of its three-person cast. The second was over star Alec Baldwin's pugnacious response in the May 7 HuffPost to Ben Brantley's dismissive review in The New York Times.

So for whatever reasons, including certainly that Times review, "Orphans" is closing at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre today instead of running to June 30, as originally planned.

That's too bad, because this is the play's first time on Broadway, although it's been done frequently elsewhere. Pittsburgh first saw "Orphans" in 1987 at the Public Theater, when Mel Shapiro directed William Jay, James Anthony Shanta and Stephen Mailer (Norman's son). The Post-Gazette's George Anderson found it fascinating, partly because it turns out to be less menacing than it sounds.

The story is simple: Two feral brothers live in a battered inner-city Philadelphia house that once belonged to their parents, now dead. Teenage Phillip, hyper athletic, developmentally challenged and educated by TV, never goes out. The older Treat cares for him while making a living robbing at knife point.

One day he brings home a drunk businessman, Harold, to hold for ransom. But the hostage soon takes over the house. A slick mobster, on the run from Chicago associates, he has money and savoir faire and provides a commanding parental presence. Triangular tensions and affections sizzle. But soon Harold's past catches up with him, and the young men are bereft.

It's a terse play, a lot like Pinter and a little like Sam Shepard, an eccentric parable of rebirth in which two young misfits get some intense parenting. They discover emotional connectedness. And we're reminded that families come in some odd packages.

The actor playing Phillip generally wins the lion's share of praise, partly because the role is young and the actor is likely to be a newcomer, partly because of its athleticism and eccentricity. We see 10 years of his developing life in a flash. Tom Sturridge takes every advantage of this opportunity, opening up emotionally while swinging around the spare living room set like a canny orangutan.

Ben Foster's Treat is hardened and scary, which makes the polish he gains under Harold's tutelage both funny and scarier still. His wail at the play's end is heartrending.

Harold is the greatest enigma and the most variable. Mr. Baldwin gives him a self-confident polish that highlights the abundant humor. He shows glints of brutality but mainly an ironic opacity that minimizes Harold's menace. His mystery isn't as dark as it could be.

The heart of Mr. Baldwin's attack on Mr. Brantley is that the critic slanders the play by saying it's not worth producing. "Why bother?" is what Mr. Baldwin says he says, and it makes him livid. But the critic did not say that so much as "why not have bothered more?" What he objects to is a flaccidity where ferocity and danger are needed.

Mr. Baldwin calls Mr. Brantley "some odd, shriveled, bitter Dickensian clerk who has sought to assemble a compendium of essays on theatre, the gist of which often have no relationship to the events onstage themselves. ... [N]o one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an X-ray to determine if you have cancer."

He goes on to campaign for Mr. Brantley's ouster and the promotion of the No. 2 Times critic, Charles Isherwood, whom he calls "more insightful ... writing circles around Brantley."

In the argument about the quality of the play, Mr. Brantley, although too negative, gets somewhat the better of it. But in the pure pugilistic face-off between critic and actor, Mr. Baldwin wins: His marble fist in a glove of velvet is more entertaining. Oddly, the actor here provides the anger and flare that the critic claims is missing in the play itself.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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