By: David Sheward
It’s easy to see why the 1985 Off-Broadway production of this Lyle Kessler play launched the reputation of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, had such a long run, and inspired so many productions across the US and around the world. It has both economy and excitement: three characters, one set, a running time of less than two hours, and lots of opportunities for the kind of pyrotechnic dramatic violence that Mamet and Pinter have made famous. In its Broadway premiere, we get to see some of those thespian fireworks, but the full impact of Kessler’s shattering tale of little boys lost is lost amid the craving for audience affection.
The simple plot entails the kind of power plays and sketchy relationships seen in Mamet’s American Buffalo and Pinter’s The Homecoming. Siblings Treat and Philip, abandoned by their parents and having fallen through the cracks of the system, live a feral existence in a rundown North Philadelphia row house. Overprotective and sociopathic Treat steals to supply his animal-like kid brother with tuna fish and mayonnaise. Gentle Philip is terrified of leaving this hovel (designed with ramshackle artistry by John Lee Beatty) because Treat has convinced him he’s allergic to everything outside.
The dynamics in this dysfunctional, makeshift family change when Treat kidnaps blustering businessman Harold, who turns out to be a gangster. The seemingly benevolent Harold is a cold, calculating killer who could eat these boys for breakfast. But, being an orphan himself, he longs to become a father figure to them and moves in. Gradually, Treat becomes jealous of Harold’s role as Philip’s mentor and protector and he rebels with catastrophic results.
For this new production, director Daniel Sullivan strives to balance the potentially hilarious Tarantino-like antics of the characters with their heartbreaking yearning to connect with each other. But he’s thwarted by the real muscle of the venture, Alec Baldwin. As Harold, the popular sitcom star and Capitol One pitchman cravenly plays for our laughs and love. Baldwin seems to saying, "Look at this guy, isn’t he a kook?" with his obvious performance.
Fortunately, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge sink into their roles of Treat and Philip rather than standing aloofly outside of them as Baldwin does. Foster is truly frightening as the powder-keg elder brother, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. But he’ll rip your heart out when Treat’s fragile support system is pulled away and he has nothing to hold on to. Sturridge is equally moving, and he gives Philip a fascinating physical life, a combination of monkey and cat as he leaps from couch to chair to stairway. These two actors give rich life to Kessler’s work and almost make up for Baldwin’s mugging.
April 18-June 30. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, intermission. $67-132. (800) 432-7200.www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus
Follow Us On Facebook