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Stage Door: Tom Sturridge Oscar's it Up in "Orphans"

Jose here. From its start, the new production of Lyle Kessler's famous Orphans, has been plagued with controversy and an aura of pure chaos. First, Shia LaBeouf infamously quit the play during the first week of rehearsals leading members of the press to wonder exactly what had gone wrong. While some blamed Alec Baldwin for his notorious bad temper, others wondered if there was indeed more than met the eye. LaBeouf was handily replaced by Ben Foster in the midst of a Broadway scandal that combined leaked emails, unexpected theater appearances and juicier drama than anyone in Smash could ever come up with.

The one member of the small cast that seemed out of the scandal loop was Tom Sturridge. A practical unknown in America, who'd had tiny parts in the Bening's Being Julia and other even smaller movies. He notoriously lost the lead in Jumper, after producers felt Hayden Christensen would be a better choice. So far, the loudest noise coming out of Sturridge camp was that made by his girlfriend Sienna Miller who always finds herself in the middle of paparazzi battles, as she tries to keep their daughter's face out of the tabloids.

It seems the silence came for a reason: Tom Sturridge is the best thing in Orphans. The show opened officially last Wednesday and unsurprisingly all reviews share their passion for Sturridge's performance. He plays Phillip, the younger of two brothers who were abandoned in early age by their parents and have learned to cope by themselves. While oldest brother Treat (Foster), goes out to commit petty theft as means of bringing food home, Phillip stays home pretending he can't read, watching The Price is Right and cradling a red shoe he thinks belonged to his mother. Even if it's never established in the play, we know there's something wrong with Phillip, we think he might be autistic, yet as the play will reveal there is much more than meets the eye.

Theater critics have made emphasis on how dated the play feels, but watching it, instead I got a sense of how timeless its themes felt. The essence of what makes a family, the defiance of paradigms established by psychoanalysis and the nature of socially acceptable masculinity are just a few of the topics touched by Lessler's seminal work. Do they always work? Of course not, but by the end of the play we realize it took us down a road we never really expected.

Most of this is owed to Sturridge's star-making performance. Everyone and their mom have alread pointed out how he's probably a shoo-in for a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Play. If this was a movie, he'd be leading the Supporting Actor category race for doing what awards bodies like best: using tics, changing his voice, reminding us how "acting" should be like. His performance here reminded me of Leo's in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and that oughta be enough to let you know what you're in for.

However this being a play, and considering Sturridge does this at least six times a week, is somehow more powerful. I couldn't help but wonder how much of himself he puts into the performance and how much he takes home with him every day. He was phenomenal in the "acting" part, relying on his feline body to use the stage as his own personal playground - he jumps, hangs from stairs and does stair climbing Linda Blair would be proud of - but there is also something very affecting in his voice. We can detect that Phillip is perhaps the only character in this play who knows how to love, despite of the horrors he's been subjected to by the one he thinks loves him the most. The very last scene - as it seems to be with most plays on Broadway this season - packs an unexpected emotional punch in which Sturridge seems to age and transform himself right in front of us. There is an unexpected reversal of fortunes that never feels ironic or tongue in cheek, Sturridge pierces through our hearts.  

Have you seen Orphans yet? Has the Shia-gate prevented you from taking this play seriously? British readers, have you seen Sturridge in anything we might want to check out?

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Reader Comments (3)

For my money, the only good part of 'On the Road'.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

I saw Orphans like two decades ago and it already was a bit dated. It was also Phillips's show. Certain characters will always bring all the attention.

Sturridge was super cute in The Boat That Rocked a movie nobody saw and I adored.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

He created quite a stir on the London stage when he debuted there. Punk Rock had great reviews and he won some awards for that.

I liked him in Pirate Radio as well, even if the movie was a mess he held his own against Rhys Ifans and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Havent seen 'on the road'.

He's career is a weird one that's for sure. He's well-connected in the industry but doesnt seem to go for 'big' showy roles - comes from a very-well respected family (son of Charles Sturridge, Bafta-winning director of 'Brideshead RevisIted (1987)) and has been represented by super-agent Hilda Quelly since 'being julia' in 2004 so he's got good linsk. Apparently he's also in Terrance Maliks new film with Fassbender and Gosling but its not listed yet.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRiz

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