Photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times
Thirty years after its L.A. premiere, Lyle Kessler’s darkly humorous and unflinching drama Orphans is having its Broadway premiere with a top-notch cast led by Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge. Read on to find out how this fearless piece of theater built its reputation and impressed audiences around the world.
City of Brotherly Love
Set in a run-down house in North Philadelphia, Orphans is the tale of two orphaned brothers, Treat and Phillip. Treat is forced to assume the role of parent for the simple-minded and reclusive Phillip and, with no rules or parental guidance, gets into thieving and street hustling. Things change when Treat kidnaps Harold, a wealthy thug who takes charge of their lives.
“I was born in Philadelphia and I’ve tried to escape it all my life, and I end up writing plays that force me to come back,” Kessler told Broadway.com. Launching his theatrical career in his hometown as an actor (including a production of Waiting for Godot co-starring Bruce Dern), Kessler eventually moved to New York to study at the Actors' Studio and began writing plays set in the gritty neighborhood where he grew up. “I’ve been trying to run away, and here I am," Kessler said. "I can’t escape it. I have to embrace it.”
Orphans had its world premiere on August 31, 1983, at the Matrix Theater in Hollywood. Starring Paul Lieber, Joe Pantoliano and Lane Smith, the John Lehne-helmed production was well-received by critics. “I find it a lovely, touching play,” Los Angeles Times critic wrote. “And it deals with heroic struggle, which I identify with. And it plays.” Originally, one major character didn’t die at the end, but Kessler rewrote the ending more than 25 times.
A Stranger Came to Visit
Orphans' reputation got a huge boost when Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-founder Gary Sinise directed a 1985 production starring the then-unknown trio of Kevin Anderson, Terry Kinney and John Mahoney as Phillip, Treat and Harold, respectively. After its Chicago run, Orphans transferred to off-Broadway's Westside Arts Theatre, where it opened on May 7, 1985, to stunning reviews. Frank Rich of the New York Times described the “part absurdist black comedy and part metaphysical melodrama” as “theater for the senses and emotions.”
“It was a terrific play and a terrific part, and Gary had a great take on it as the director,” Mahoney told Broadway.com in a 2007 interview, adding that he ranks Orphans as the best play he's done. “When someone comes over on to me on the street, I always think they're going to talk about Frasier. When they say, 'I saw you in Orphans,' it makes me feel great that they remember it. And that happens often, especially in New York.”
In 1986, Orphans became the first Steppenwolf production to be performed internationally at London's Apollo Theatre, where Albert Finney played Harold. Finney won an Olivier Award for his performance and went on to reprise the role on the big screen.
Hollywood Looks to Adopt
Kessler adapted his play into a 1987 film directed by Alan Pakula and starring Finney, Matthew Modine as Treat and Anderson (from the Steppenwolf production) as Phillip. “I think it's a piece that can be enhanced by film. Film is a medium of contrasts,” Pakula told the Los Angeles Times. “There was a natural, non-arbitrary opportunity to go outside and contrast the world of people with the isolated world inside the house.”
The film included seven additional characters and was opened up from the claustrophobic one-room set. Although the actors received good reviews, the film was not a box office hit and critics such as Roger Ebert wrote that Orphans was better suited to the stage.
The universal human needs explored in Orphans—love, and the affection and recognition that entails—helped the play's popularity grow far beyond New York, Chicago and Hollywood. “The play has been done everywhere, from Japan to Iceland to Mexico to South America,” said Kessler. “It just boggles the mind. It’s amazing: the evolution of the play and its reception in the world.”
Orphans Finds a Broadway Home
A play with three juicy parts is Broadway star bait, and Orphans is finally getting its Great White Way debut in a production starring Emmy winner and Tony nominee Alec Baldwin and Broadway newcomers Ben Foster (as Treat) and Tom Sturridge (as Phillip), directed by Daniel Sullivan. Baldwin saw a 2005 workshop version of the play featuring Al Pacino, Jesse Eisenberg and Shawn Hatosy and immediately knew he wanted to play Harold on Broadway.
“I went to producers and said, ‘Let’s do it.’” Baldwin told the New York Times. “You spend years tracking plays until you’re right for them and then try to make the other factors happen. I like shows with a language that I never get tired of. I’ve always wanted to work with [Daniel] Sullivan.” The production made early headlines when Shia LaBeouf exited the role of Treat after drama in the rehearsal room, but the show went on with Foster after a short delay in the beginning of previews.
For his part, Kessler thinks Orphans is arriving on Broadway at precisely the right moment. “Now is the time, and because of the luck and a good fortune we got, we have the right chance,” he told Broadway.com. “I think the play is deeply moving and joyful. It celebrates the human spirit, and that’s a main thing. I would hope that people would experience that.”
Orphans opens at the Schoenfeld Theatre on April 18.