Shia wins this round. In the battle of brawn onstage at the very bad Broadway revival of Orphans, three men swear, fight, threaten, tie up others, drink, and get downright bloody. What’s missing in this play is a champ, and the only character who comes to mind is the Hollywood bad-boy Shia LaBeouf, who was fired from the production early on and then made an ass out of himself by posting private emails about the production, and then sitting in the first row on the first night of previews. It was pompous Hollywood behavior at its worst, but, hey, it did create drama.
There should be a footnote after the “very bad” remark, because Orphans is an uninteresting play, period. Lyle Kessler’s story of three pathetic characters—two dysfunctional brothers who live together and one stranger they take hostage—is one of those David Mamet/Sam Shepard wanna-bes that doesn’t match the language of the former or the raw emotion of the latter. Its pleasure, I’m guessing, is in watching three actors so engrossing as a team and so connected in their twisted relationships, you forget the plot and engulf yourself in the ensemble work.
Not here. Tom Sturridge plays the youngest brother, Phillip, an apparent agoraphobic who’s developmentally challenged, by what we never discover. We also never know why he leaps around the stage like a Spider-Man stunt double, except that it’s kind of macho cool and matches well with the hard-ass music blaring in between scenes. The short play, which would fare better without an intermission, begins with his older brother, Treat (Ben Foster), coming home after a day of petty thievery to play a game of Tag with Phillip, and argue a lot. Yes, they’re screwed up siblings, but you won’t get that from the tension-less duo. The scene is so flat that IHOP would throw it back. Orphans is, at best, a slice of life, and for the opening scene to work you’d have to have actors and a director (more on that in a bit), who know how to bring out the underneath in these bizarre antics. Instead, you’re likely to strain your ears to hear what never comes… interesting dialogue to set up the play.
Alec Baldwin picks things up in the second scene, a drunken Irishman who Treat drags home and plans to take hostage. He’s funny and solid, but here we have a new problem: Baldwin has transformed himself over the years from leading man to leading mobster and always with a wink. Since the play has no cast solidarity, you find your mind wandering through his fantastic performances on shows like 30 Rock and Will & Grace, and not taking him seriously, and not knowing if you’re supposed to. He’s sitcom-surface funny, which is either an unfortunate result of bad star casting, bad writing, bad direction, or all three. Baldwin is anything but scary, and by plays end, you still don’t understand the intentions of his character or if his back story is fictitious or true.
By the end of this play, demons are revealed and hearts pour out and testosterone flows, as is common in a lot of similar shows to come out in the ‘80s (Orphans first premiered in 1985). The energy at the end is where it should be in the first scene, but the emotions never quite surface. Sturridge is a gifted actor who doesn’t get to develop emotionally, and Foster, who was magnificent in the film The Messenger, gets stuck doing his best “Bob Fosse as Interpreted by Sean Penn” quirky acting moves. As for Baldwin, his character goes out with a whimper, not the hopeful bang you’re anticipating.
If the winner of Orphans is LaBeouf, the loser is Director Daniel Sullivan, who’s missing in action for this entire production. The pacing is left to the actors, and pretty much all entrances and exits start at the same tempo. John Lee Betty’s ramshackle set has a second floor that goes unutilized, for the most part, and you can’t help but wonder if Sullivan was so busy keeping things calm amid publicity flurry that he just didn’t have time to figure out how to incorporate that second story. The empty space is the perfect metaphor for this entire production.
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