About the author:
Philadelphia-born playwright Lyle Kessler began his career as an actor, studying with Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio before turning his attention to writing plays. Kessler’s dramas, including The Watering Place, which opened on Broadway in 1969, are known for their gritty realism and dark humor. After spending the past 30 years in Los Angeles, Kessler has returned to New York City to help marshal his best-known play, the 1983 psychological thriller Orphans, to a Broadway debut on April 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge. A success around the world since Steppenwolf Theater's 1985 production in Chicago and New York, Orphans is the story of orphaned brothers living a rough life in North Philly and what happens when they kidnap a Chicago gangster. Below, Kessler shares his thoughts on how the play has evolved, and why the world has connected with his "dead end kids."
I was born in Philadelphia, and I’ve tried to escape that city all my life. I end up writing plays that force me back to Philadelphia, at least psychologically if not physically. I’ve been trying to run away and here I am. I can’t escape Philly. Orphans took many years to evolve into the initial production that occurred in Los Angeles. I made changes to it in Chicago, when Gary Sinise directed it at Steppenwolf, but I actually began it in New York City.
I wrote the first act and was unable to move to the second act. I worked on it for a long period and then put it away. My wife, actress Margaret Ladd, and I moved to L.A. and six years later, when she gave birth to our twins, I gave birth to the second act of the play. Whether it was coincidental I don’t know. The play was struggling to come out, but in the proper form. It was so kinetically a part of myself—not realistically but emotionally.
Orphans reflects unconscious elements in myself that were, at the time, indigestible and butting up against each other in my psyche; issues I wasn’t really in touch with but was trying to put into a dramatic framework. We all experience aspects of the play's characters: Phillip, who is hidden and scared, afraid to go out; Treat, with his underbelly of rage and anger when slighted. We keep our reactions within civilized boundaries, of course, but Treat doesn’t. He has no impulse control, so when slighted, he hits back. Harold, obviously, is the man who brings them together and makes them whole. The “father” we all look for.
I never entered the world of the play intending to dramatize that. They weren’t even brothers in the beginning. They were Treat and Phillip. They were characters in another situation, and it suddenly took form, the first act. Harold became this character who was in a dead end himself in Chicago. He was an orphan, so the three characters are all orphaned (the metaphor of the play). I think people must feel that way within themselves—orphaned. Harold, Treat and Phillip bond in this kind of comedic and emotional way, and its triggered very strong reactions from audiences all over the world. It touched a chord in people.
SPOILER ALERT: When Orphans was done in L.A., Harold did not die at the end. It was only in Chicago where I rewrote the ending 20 times, that I realized I had boxed myself into a corner, and the only way out was the death of Harold. I must have been resisting the death unconsciously because I loved the character.
But when that happened, I actually discovered the play. Treat’s terrible needs, his inability to let go of his brother and his longing for a father figure. It’s that production that has been done around the world, over and over and over again. It just boggles the mind. It’s amazing: the evolution of the play and its reception in so many countries.
I feel very protective of my dead end kids. I’m at rehearsal and at the Schoenfeld Theatre day and night. This is a funny production, very emotional and dark, but incredibly funny. I think that the humor is essential. It has to be funny, it has to touch people, and they have to be moved. I don’t just write straight dramas with a touch of laughter here and there. I hope people will be deeply moved, deeply entertained, deeply joyful. It celebrates the human spirit.
The actors playing the three parts are extraordinary. Alec Baldwin is just amazing as Harold. He touches every base of that character. The tough, loving gangster, funny as hell, a magician, and a great stage actor. His performance is transcendent. Ben and Tom are beautiful in their roles. I’m deeply gratified that I have an incredible cast and an incredible director in Daniel Sullivan. They make it something that I don’t know would have occurred earlier. Now is the right time for this production of Orphans. It’s been quite a journey moving it to Broadway.
As for Philadelphia, you know what it is like? Sink holes. You stand in the earth and it opens up and you’re sucked down. I’m never going to escape Philadelphia. I have to, in fact, embrace it because it’s there and it’s not going away. It’s who I am and where I came from. I can attempt to escape it by writing plays, but they end up there anyway, so what’s the point?