By Thom Geier
Updated April 18, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
ORPHANS Tom Sturridge, Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster
Credit: Joan Marcus

Shia who? The backstage drama behind the new Broadway production of Lyle Kessler’s play Orphans has generated lots of ink (or pixels, in the case of the Twitter war that Mr. LaBeouf unleashed upon exiting the show in its first week of rehearsals). But the tabloid hubbub pales in comparison to the theatrical pyrotechnics on display in Daniel Sullivan’s crackerjack staging.

The setting is a rundown Philadelphia house occupied by two practically feral brothers in their 20s; Dad abandoned the family long ago, and Mom’s death still casts a shadow over the house. Phillip, the mentally challenged younger brother, seeks comfort in mom’s old closet and wields a red high-heel shoe like a special talisman. As played with catlike energy by the remarkable British actor Tom Sturridge (On the Road), he also bounds around the sparsely furnished house as if it were a jungle gym, bounding from the sofa to the window sill or the staircase bannister in unlaced sneakers.

His older brother, Treat, has become a surrogate father figure — one who resorts to petty crime and sidewalk holdups to keep the cupboards full of canned tuna and Hellman’s mayonnaise. Ben Foster (The Messenger), who stepped in for LaBeouf, imbues the role with all the contradictions it demands — from moment to moment, he can be brotherly or threatening, blindly self-absorbed or sweetly vulnerable.

One fateful night in the ”not-too-distant past,” as the program states, Treat corners a very big fish — a sharply dressed businessman named Harold with a suitcase full of stock and bond certificates. Since Harold is played by Alec Baldwin with natural alpha-male authority (even in the character’s initially drunken state), you can guess that this is no simple victim. Though he’s soon bound to an armless chair in the brothers’ living room, no Baldwin character can be contained for long. Tables will be turned, furniture may be overturned, and each character will be challenged to step outside his comfort zone before the gut-punch of a finale.

First mounted in 1983, Kessler’s three-man drama remains a vibrant exploration of masculinity and the challenge of forming and maintaining family connections. And Sullivan, by design and happy accident, has assembled a cast that manages to strike the tricky balance of playing the allegory with hard-earned authenticity. They make this simple story feel both real and somehow larger than life. A?

(Tickets: or 800-447-7400)