Peter Shaffer's "Equus" is a mystery play of sorts, but it's less a whodunit than a whywasitdun.
The story of a disturbed young man who steals into a stable one night and blinds six horses - and the child psychiatrist who tries to find out why - opened in London in 1973. From there it went on to star a whole galaxy of stars on stage and screen: Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and a young Peter Firth among them.
But there's no mystery behind the revival that opened last night: It's brought Harry Potter and Uncle Vernon - that is, Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths - to Broadway.
And with the new cast, the star balance has shifted, from that of the psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, to Radcliffe's tortured Alan Strang. Or, as far as most people are concerned, to Harry Potter doing the full monty.
Despite his almost total lack of stage experience - seven years of Potter in his magic kingdom suggest Shirley Temple rather than Laurence Olivier - Radcliffe, with his luminously intense eyes and fragile but wiry body, looks wonderfully right as Alan, the 17-year-old British boy besotted by everything equine.
His acting, beautifully understated and withdrawn, has just the right manner for this horribly mixed-up adolescent, at the prey of a wayward religiosity and a twisted sexuality cemented together with suburban hypocrisy.
As Alan's psychiatrist eventually realizes, his is a madness capable of the fires of ecstasy.
Griffiths - best known as the gay, liberal and garrulous old schoolmaster in "The History Boys" - shapes the role in a far less buttoned-up fashion than his predecessors.
To some extent, it works: Perhaps a more disheveled and less formal psychiatrist would appeal to a contemporary adolescent more than the authoritarian, almost haughty figure suggested by the likes of Hopkins and Burton.
Yet something's missing now in the strength of contrast between the rebellious boy and the old psychiatrist, who dreams of ancient Greece.
This is possibly a reading embedded in Thea Sharrock's direction, which in many respects lacks the power that flowed through John Dexter's original staging.
Moreover, the rest of the cast - with the exception of Anna Camp, as a young woman trying to initiate Alan into the mystique of sex - seems less secure this second time around.
The unhappily married Dysart finds himself envying the intense psychic reality felt by Alan, who worships horses and finds sexual release atop a steed.
Dysart can cure him, but in that cure rests the seeds of mediocrity.
Would a psychiatrist feel like this today? Then again, would a playwright?
The young wizard has chosen wisely. Making his Broadway debut in Thea Sharrock’s oddly arid revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” which opened Thursday night at the Broadhurst Theater, the 19-year-old film star Daniel Radcliffe steps into a mothball-preserved, off-the-rack part and wears it like a tailor’s delight — that is, a natural fit that allows room to stretch. Would that the production around him, first presented in London, showed off Mr. Shaffer’s 1973 psychodrama as flatteringly as it does its stage-virgin star.
Stretching without tearing is presumably what Mr. Radcliffe, who has spent most of his adolescence playing the schoolboy sorcerer in the globally popular Harry Potter movies, had in mind when he took on the role of Alan Strang, a 17-year-old suburban stableboy who commits grotesque and seemingly inexplicable crimes against horses.
For Alan Strang is, in a sense, a tidy inversion of Harry Potter. Both come of age in a menacing, magical world where the prospect of being devoured by darkness is always imminent. The difference is that for Harry that world is outside of him; Alan’s is of his own creation.
Like many beloved film actors Mr. Radcliffe has an air of heightened ordinariness, of the everyday lad who snags your attention with an extra, possibly dangerous gleam of intensity. That extra dimension has always been concentrated in Mr. Radcliffe’s Alsatian-blue gaze, very handy for glaring down otherworldly ghouls if you’re Harry Potter. Or if you’re Alan Strang, for blocking and enticing frightened grown-ups who both do and do not want to understand why you act as you do.
I had forgotten just how much is made of Alan’s eyes in “Equus,” which became a sensational upper-middlebrow hit when it opened in London and later on Broadway more than three decades ago. His stare is variously described as accusing, demanding and, in the case of a comely lass who just wants to bed him, amazing. Fortunately it projects as big from the stage as it does in cinematic close-up, as does Mr. Radcliffe’s compact, centered presence (which he retains even stark, raving naked). In any case, it’s the look of someone who sees and feels more deeply than ordinary folk. Such depth is to be envied — isn’t it? — even if it prohibits its possessors from fully belonging to human society.
That’s the conundrum at the heart of “Equus” and in most of Mr. Shaffer’s plays, particularly his “Amadeus,” in which an 18th-century wild child named Mozart has the lesser composer Salieri grinding his teeth in homicidal jealousy. In “Equus,” the envying is done by Martin Dysart (the superb Richard Griffiths), the psychiatrist asked to oversee Alan’s treatment after the boy blinds six horses one night in the stables where he works.
Dysart acknowledges that what Alan has done is unspeakable. But as he shines a light into the recesses of the boy’s mind he sees the landscape of a self-made, chthonic religion in which the horse is God. For Dysart, a man in a sterile marriage who has measured out his life in patients’ files and annual holidays in Greece, Alan’s inner existence has the mythic grandeur of Homer’s Olympus.
Mr. Griffiths, who won a Tony as the inspiring, student-fondling teacher in Alan Bennett’s “History Boys,” plays Dysart with less masochistic swagger than I’ve ever seen. It was pretty hard to buy the kvetching of the sonorously suffering Richard Burton, who played the part in the 1977 film (and briefly on Broadway), about being so damned meek and ordinary.
On the other hand, Mr. Griffiths does banality beautifully, presenting Dysart in the early scenes as someone who has smoothed out every utterance to the same level of flat, professional detachment, lightly spiced with witty self-deprecation. He resists the temptation to play hotdog surfer, riding the purple waves of Mr. Shaffer’s symbol-saturated monologues. He builds Dysart’s character with care, so when the eruptions of naked doubt, self-contempt and sorrow finally break out, he’s earned them.
But while I can’t imagine another actor making more sense of Dysart, I’m not sure that the character — or for that matter, the play — benefits from such scrupulous treatment. Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Radcliffe (who stops short of the all-out religious ecstasy of Peter Firth, who created his part) are delivering utterly credible and often affecting performances. And I was always thoroughly engaged by their scenes together, which generate the genuine tension of clashing minds longing to meld.
The problem with such well-considered acting is that it throws a clear and merciless light on the hokum of the play as a whole. “Equus” was written in the shadow of the then voguish theories of R. D. Laing, which championed the creative beauty within madness while fixing blame on the repressiveness of the conventional family.
We were just out of the 1960s when “Equus” arrived, and this creed of communing with one’s inner madman had more appeal than it does today, when people are doing their best to hold themselves together as familiar social structures threaten collapse. To buy into the innate worth of Alan’s raging fantasies, we more than ever have to feel viscerally the exhilaration he feels.
Yet for all the inventive stagecraft of John Napier, the designer of this and the first production, and Ms. Sharrock (who stays close to the spirit of John Dexter’s original direction) — for all the prancing horse-masked dancers on the revolving stage with its Stonehenge-like blocks — I never felt a ripple of vicarious passion. The careful realism of Mr. Griffiths’s and Mr. Radcliffe’s performances makes you appraise their characters with a newly sober eye.
This means that the homoerotic aspect of Alan’s equine dreams becomes excruciatingly blatant, a garden-variety sexual identity crisis dressed up for a night at the races. You can hear every metaphor falling into place with an amplified click, just as the psychological clues to the detective-story aspect of the play seem to be announced with the equivalent of a suddenly illuminated light bulb.
It doesn’t help that Ms. Sharrock has the supporting cast members turning directly to the audience to make such announcements (things along the lines of, “Well, now that you mention it, he did keep this strange picture above his bed.”). These performances are infected with the let’s-out-British-the-British strain that often happens to New York actors mixed with English actors in English plays.
Such affectations would matter less if everyone were pitched at the same stylistic tone. But as Alan’s child-warping parents, Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith offer broad emotions without the refining detail of individual character. Anna Camp is appealingly natural as the young woman who unwittingly leads Alan to his acts of destruction.
But Kate Mulgrew, as the magistrate who is Dysart’s confidante, is alternately as plummy and mannered as a society matron in a Maugham drawing-room comedy and as portentous as a sinister housekeeper in a creaky-old-house chiller.
Ms. Mulgrew, for the record, was the only cast member awarded with exit applause before the final curtain when I saw the show (this after a particularly flamboyant declaration to Dysart). Personally, I winced whenever she opened her mouth, but I think the audience was hungry for the sort of campy grandeur she provided.
There’s no question that “Equus” has dated, particularly in its presentation of psychiatric investigations (something Mr. Shaffer humbly admits in a program note). But taking it too seriously may not be the best way to serve it in revival. This version had no crackling artificial fire to match the annoying smoke that kept rising through the stage floor. And as much as I admired the sensitivity and intelligence of Mr. Griffiths’s and Mr. Radcliffe’s performances, this revival might have been better off if everyone had just gone for the Gothic.
Stunt casting in theater can do a disservice to playwrights, with famous faces often monopolizing attention while devaluing the merits of the work itself. But in his impressive debut in a major stage role, as the disturbed adolescent in "Equus," Daniel Radcliffe significantly helps overcome the fact that Peter Shaffer's 1975 Tony winner doesn't entirely hold up. The play is an astute career move for the "Harry Potter" frontman as he confidently navigates the transition from child stardom to adult roles -- and Radcliffe's performance provides "Equus" with a raw emotional nerve center that renders secondary any concerns about its wonky and over-explanatory psychology.
Premiered at the National Theater in London in 1973 and transferred to Broadway the following year for a celebrated three-year run, "Equus" has always been less notable as a psychological investigation than as a vehicle for two mesmerizing lead performances backed by striking stagecraft. Taking her cue from John Dexter's stark original staging and retaining the crucial collaboration of that production's designer, John Napier, director Thea Sharrock correctly understands the play's chief asset is its blazing theatricality.
Sharrock leans a little too forcefully on the atmospherics at times, cranking up the smoke machine and ominous ambient music with a heavy hand. But the production is visually dazzling, making assured use of David Hersey's penetrating lighting and Napier's stylized set, with its imposing coliseum of stable doors surrounding a revolving central platform with four movable rectangular blocks. Leaning forward to look down from above, the two elevated rows of onstage audience members heighten the drama's sense of claustrophobic, inescapable scrutiny.
Constructed by Shaffer around sketchy information regarding a horrific crime that took place in regional England, the mystery thriller is basically a series of taut encounters between the perpetrator, Alan Strang (Radcliffe), a stable boy who inexplicably blinded six horses with a metal spike, and Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), the psychiatrist assigned by the state to discover his reasons. As Dysart coaxes his recalcitrant subject, via hypnosis and abreaction, to revisit the roots of his disturbance and the harrowing events of the crime, the shrink comes to regard the boy's violent passion with something approaching envy.
With his effortless naturalism and mental agility, balancing clinical detachment, curiosity and concern, Griffiths makes Dysart's self-discovery as painful and unsettling as Alan's. Stuck in a lifeless, childless marriage of "antiseptic proficiency" and sustained only by his fascination with Greek mythology, Dysart is confronted during the course of his inquiry by his hunger to be (or be with) someone instinctive, passionate, capable of being transported by worship.
Alan's rapturous psychosexual deification of the animal that has captured his imagination since childhood forces Dysart to acknowledge the emptiness of his own sad suburban life. As he steers the boy toward recovery, he begins to wonder, in the monologues woven throughout the play, if by restoring Alan to "a normal life" he's not merely quenching his spirit.
Thanks in large part to the integrity of Griffiths' performance, this dubious consideration remains affecting. It's in the particulars of Alan's case and Dysart's treatment of him that things get shaky.
Shaffer's text is grounded deep in the 1960s-'70s psychology of R.D. Laing, with its notions about the transformative aspects of mental illness, adding a heavy dollop of Freud and a hint of Marxist philosophy concerning the denial of individual freedom. But given that most audiences, three decades on, are better-versed in pop psychology and mental disorders, all this comes across as elementary, outmoded or even professionally inept.
The play has frequently been interpreted as a metaphor for the homosexual repression of Alan, Dysart or both. That suggestion becomes bluntly manifest here the moment strapping Lorenzo Pisoni rides on as the young horseman that transfixed the 6-year-old Alan in an indelible episode on a beach. While the boy's fixation is with the animal -- from its sweaty flanks to the cream dripping from its chained mouth (seriously) -- the presentation of the horseman as a Ralph Lauren gay porn fantasy, with muscles packed into skintight jodhpurs and polo shirt, will have even the most amateur shrinks muttering to themselves about transference of desire.
Wearing the arresting raised metal hooves and steel-cage equine headgear of the six actor-dancers that provide the production's stunning horse imagery, Pisoni also plays Nugget, the chief object of Alan's obsession at the stable where he works. The scenes of quasi-religious ecstasy in which Alan is hoisted up on horseback for the first time, the intensely sexual release of his furtive naked night rides and, finally, the terrified raptus that follows his abortive date with stable co-worker Jill (Anna Camp) all retain the power to shock and disturb as "Equus" did in the '70s.
But Dysart's failure to approach, even obliquely, the likely cause of Alan's torment while forcing him to relive the trauma now makes the drama seem somewhat specious. And the characters who contribute to shape the boy's psychosis and push him over the edge -- stern, judgmental father (T. Ryder Smith); suffocating religious mother (Carolyn McCormack); flirtatious would-be girlfriend (Camp) -- are all too thinly sketched to provide texture.
Likewise the well-meaning magistrate who delivers Alan to Dysart is a role that serves merely to punctuate the shrink's monologues, though it's given strangely overwrought handling by Kate Mulgrew, bringing her roundest BBC vowels.
Shaffer's main accomplishment is his skill at sustaining the mystery despite the play's psychological transparency. But it's a credit in particular to Radcliffe's moving work -- and to his nuanced chemistry with Griffiths -- that Alan's struggle constitutes a cogent drama, even while much of the surrounding reasoning is unsound. His Alan is antagonistic and not easily intimidated yet desperately vulnerable and alone, contradictions deftly played against Griffiths' seeming nonchalance and increasingly troubled self-reflection.
London critics complained during the revival's West End run that Radcliffe lacked vocal control, but time in the role and an extra year-and-a-half of maturity may have helped. His delivery here is as confident and compelling as his febrile physicality -- whether fully clothed and wary or naked and defenseless.