Lyle Kessler's play "The Orphans" is apparently the kind of thing movie stars fight to be in. But it's not always clear why we have to fight to get a ticket.
It's a testosterone-laden darkly humorous piece that offers three great parts — a mentally challenged young man, a bubbling eruption of male anger and a cool-as-ice older dude — but generates little light. This is a play more fun to act in than watch.
The production that opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is likely best known for a creative dustup between Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, which led to the younger man's leaving it in a cloud of tweets. He may have the last laugh.
Kessler's play, which premiered in 1983 in Los Angeles, has touches reminiscent of Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker" and John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger." The humor sometimes smacks of Martin McDonagh's absurdist vein, and the dialogue is often overly heightened rat-tat-tat.
"The Orphans" is about two orphaned brothers forced to fend for themselves in a rotting house in North Philadelphia. One brother, Treat, is a pistol without the safety on, a cauldron of rage. His sibling, Philip, is a bundle of insecurities, who is told to stay inside for his own protection; he basically just watches TV and eats mayonnaise and tuna.
One day, Treat brings the very drunk rich-looking Harold home, ties him up and tries to leverage him for a ransom. Things don't exactly go according to plan: Harold takes a shine to his captors and becomes a father figure of sorts.
The biggest problem here is that the three actors are determined to be in different plays and director Daniel Sullivan hasn't been able to make them gel. Perhaps there wasn't enough time.
Tom Sturridge plays Philip as if he's looking for an Academy Award nomination — a bundle of tics, prone to leaping to and from pieces of furniture or sitting in a crouch, using a whiny voice and with hands that hang in front of him. With his long hair, Sturridge seems to be trying to resemble a bird trapped in a cage. He should really stop doing that.
Ben Foster, who bravely took LaBeouf's role when he left during rehearsals, has a more naturalistic take on Treat but lacks the killer instinct to be truly menacing while in full Hulk mode. Foster, though excellent when he's in psychic pain or mimicking Harold, can't quite become a monster.
It's clear why Baldwin wanted to play Harold, a wiseguy who turns out to be an orphan himself. Baldwin gets to hop around in a chair while tied up, be elegant, funny and worldly, teach his young charges about bouillabaisse and offer them an "encouraging squeeze." Baldwin's natural aristocratic side fits nicely here. It's just that he's paired with a bird-boy and a guy acting really hard to be scary.
John Lee Beatty's interior set is not as outrageously decrepit as it could be when we first see it, but his little touches after Harold enters the boys' lives — bannisters are repaired and a nicer couch appears, as well as a nifty drinks cart — are fabulous touches. Jess Goldstein's costumes perfectly zoom from homebound to fancy, and Tom Kitt's blasts of rock between sets is unnerving, in a good way.
In the end, Harold will free Philip from his house arrest — he takes him outside and gives him a map, prompting the younger man to burst out "I know where I am now, Harold!" — and try to teach Treat self-discipline, but this makeshift family of damaged orphans cannot survive long, no matter how much they need each other.
Philip's burgeoning independence threatens Treat, and the play then takes a descent into melodrama that smacks of Tennessee Williams, but without that master's profundity. One of the three characters dies, two others are left sobbing and the audience may deserve an "encouraging squeeze."