Baldwin plays Harold, a mysterious crook who has been kidnapped by Treat (Foster), a small-time thug, after they meet in a North Philadelphia bar. With his briefcase stuffed full of securities, the dead-drunk Harold seems like the perfect victim. Treat figures a healthy ransom payment will finally lead to a better life for him and his orphaned, unworldly younger brother, Phillip (Tom Sturridge), who has never stepped outside the pair's rundown home (designed with great skill by John Lee Beatty).
As Harold natters on about Treat being a "dead-end kid" — a reference to the young hoodlums in old-time movies — the audience laughs loudly at these statements. And Baldwin's sardonic delivery certainly encourages us to do so. Yet as the first act turns darker, especially after Harold turns the tables on Treat, the loud guffaws that greet every utterance emanating from the former 30 Rock star rob the dialogue of its intended underlying menace. We've become so used to Baldwin being funny, it's as if we can't imagine he's not trying to be hilarious. Fortunately, the proper equilibrium is finally restored in the second act in which Harold (an orphan himself) becomes the de facto father in this dysfunctional household, but the show never coheres the way it should.
Foster scores strongest in the show's second half, as Treat's rough, violent edges get visibly softened. After years of answering to no one, Treat initially chafes at taking orders from Harold. But we soon see how desperate Treat is to be freed of some responsibility for his brother, as well as how much he craves parental love and approval. As he struts around in the fancy new suit Harold bought him (one of the many spot-on choices by costumer Jess Goldstein), we briefly glimpse what Treat could have become under different circumstances.
Even more heartbreaking is the ultimate realization that Treat's misguided approach to protecting his younger brother has prevented any chance of Phillip existing safely outside the house. Under Harold's guidance, the young man we first see as an almost feral wild child is successfully domesticated. Sturridge's physically charged performance is a wonder to behold — you fear for his safety as he bounds around the set like a crazed panther — but equally amazing is just how deep the British actor burrows beneath Phillip's fragile skin.
For his efforts in balancing the play's mood swings as deftly as he does among his mostly well-cast trio of actors, Sullivan deserves our praise. The production may not be perfect, but getting Orphans completely right is hardly child's play.