It’s hard not to see a bit of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy in any role Alec Baldwin has played lately: the limitless self-confidence, the access to money, the deadpan sense of humor. Maybe it’s subconscious typecasting, but those traits hold too with Harold, the drunk stranger who comes home with Treat (Ben Foster), a low-level street thug he meets at a bar in Philadelphia, in Daniel Sullivan’s production of Orphans by Lyle Kessler, now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.
Harold is drawn to Treat mostly because he sees in him remnants of his own childhood as an orphan, back when he was a “dead-end kid.” Treat is drawn more to Harold’s expensive clothes and vulnerability; he is an easy and potentially profitable target. When he rifles through his passed-out victim’s wallet and briefcase after bringing him home, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot.
“Home,” though, is also home to Treat’s younger brother Phillip (Tom Sturridge), a high-functioning and sweet man with developmental disabilities. Loyal and mostly obedient, Phillip defers to the older brother who raised him after their mother died when they were boys.
For his “own good,” Treat takes advantage of his brother’s gullibility, convincing Phillip that he’s allergic to nearly everything outside to keep him indoors 24 hours a day. It’s not clear if this is a lie out of convenience or from the kind of bad judgment that comes second nature to Treat, but Phillip never questions it until he meets Harold.
We assume Harold doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into, but when he wakes up the next morning sober but gagged and tied to a chair, we quickly find out Harold is a bit more street smart than he first appears. Attracted to his toughness and similar backstory, Harold wants hire Treat as a personal bodyguard.
Not being the forward-thinking type, Treat has little interest in Harold’s offers of stability and regular income – he doesn’t take orders, and he “ain’t no dead-end kid” anyway.
And here’s where Treat as a character may break down a bit for some. He’s not the most palatable personality, and it gets to a point where his judgments are so misguided or just so stupid that playgoers may find themselves rolling their eyes in frustration.
Much of that comes in his treatment of Phillip, though you get the sense his heart’s in the right place. The one moment Treat acts with unprovoked kindness was greeted with an audible reaction by the audience, as if everyone was soaking in that moment, hungrily lapping up this tiny sliver of redemption.
This isn’t a problem with the actor. Foster performs his character flawlessly, making that terrible personality his own and easily achieving one of the highest marks of a versatile actor: the ability to make past roles seem as if they were played by someone else.
It also may not be a problem at all. It might be frustrating to have a character with so little redeeming value, but is it wrong? And that’s not to say it’s difficult to feel sorry for Treat. You won’t like him, but you will pity him.
Baldwin, meanwhile, delivers perfectly the father figure in Harold that Treat and Phillip didn’t realize they were missing. If it seems that Treat moves too quickly toward accepting Harold’s offer between acts, you do find soon enough that he’s still the same old Treat, anger management issues and all. But Baldwin’s Harold is the one perfectly consistent force in the play, creating an unspoken symbiotic relationship between the brothers who need parental encouragement and the man who needs someone to mentor.
Sturridge performs at a level at least at that of his co-stars, and often above. Disability is a subject ripe for mishandling, requiring a higher degree of care and precision. Sturrudge does it right: Phillip is not merely comic relief and his idiosyncrasies are not stereotypes. More to the point (and as a mark of writer Lyle Kessler’s skill), his condition is a necessary part of the plot rather than an extraneous or token add-on meant for garnish.
There is some comedy in this play, and none of it is wasted on throwaways: it’s the kind of sophisticated humor you often see in serious stories. Meaning, of course, that there still isn’t enough of it to soften the blow of this show’s gravity.
Orphans won’t be the feel-good hit of the spring, but it should still be a hit.