Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Starring Richard Griffiths, Daniel Radcliffe, Kate Mulgrew, Anna Camp, Carolyn McCormick, Lorenzo Pisoni, T. Ryder Smith
Performances from September 5, 2008 to February 8, 2009
235 West 44th Street
In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a 17-year-old young man blinds six horses by stabbing out their eyes in a stable where he had an abortive sexual encounter with a young woman. The bulk of the play recounts the attempts of psychiatrist Martin Dysart to explore the motives and background of the boy, Alan Strang, to discover why he committed this heinous crime.
Playwright Shaffer, who based Equus on a real-life incident, has said that he didn’t dig further into it, instead writing a “what if?” by filling in characterizations and motivation on his own. If the play isn’t a convincing—or even credible—exploration of the conflicts between Alan and the doctor, it is an explosive piece of theater when, done well, makes for a thrilling 2-1/2 hours onstage.
This production passes that test at least; as directed by Thea Sharrock–repeating her acclaimed London staging–Equus is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat drama that flies by so quickly that any quibbles about Shaffer’s heavy-handed craft don’t appear until afterward.
Sharrock’s tremendously talented actors also do their part. Richard Griffiths–who won a Tony as the teacher in The History Boys two seasons ago–plays Dysart, our narrator and guide through this maze, with maximal charm and wit, his professorial ease smoothing his dramatically bumpy journey to revelations about Alan. Griffiths even sells the doctor’s passionate but hackneyed speech painting the boy’s sickness as a different but equally valid normalcy, at least compared with Dysart’s own failures in his married life.
Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, shines with a confidence belying his stage inexperience as the sexually and emotionally confused Alan. With eyes being shamelessly metaphorical throughout the play, Radcliffe’s baby blues are on constant display, but the young actor doesn’t flinch while keeping that as just another aspect of his thoroughly grounded performance.
In a splendid supporting cast, a half-dozen balletic, athletic actors nimbly play the fated horses, led by Lorenzo Pisoni as Nugget, the steed on whom Alan unnervingly fixates. The resourceful Anna Camp is delightfully natural as Jill, the girl who initiates Alan into the joys of stable sex with disastrous results; their already-famous—and completely necessary—nude scene is tastefully done. As Alan’s distraught parents, Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith are hamstrung by roles that are blatant caricatures, yet they still have affecting moments. Indeed, only Kate Mulgrew, as a judicial colleague of Dysart, disappoints: she overenunciates and generally comports herself as if she’s in a Shakespearean tragedy, dragging the proceedings to a halt with every appearance.
With its obvious symbolism, Equus can be explained away in numerous ways–teenage sexual confusion, latent homosexuality, Catholic guilt, etc.–but none of these explanations is in the least convincing. Admittedly, however, Shaffer has cleverly constructed his play: moving back and forth from Dysart’s sessions with Alan to the various scenes that led to the crime give Equus suspense of a sort it doesn’t deserve.
But it’s Sharrock’s stellar staging–which climaxes with an indisputably theatrical tour de force when Alan blinds the horses, in an orgasmic mélange of lighting, sound, music and movement that creates a truly hair-raising onstage moment–that makes Equus seem less like the bloodless, creaky vehicle it actually is and more like a shatteringly adult drama.
originally posted on timessquare.com