September 27, 2008

The Harry Potter Kid Gallops Into Broadway's Winner's Circle (and Manhood) in "Equus"

Two people could get great seats to a Broadway show for under $50 in the fall of 1974 and my friend Phil and I, both recent college graduates and desperate to be thought sophisticated theatergoers, took turns buying tickets for us to see the hottest shows. None was hotter that season than Equus, Peter Shaffer’s play about a stable boy who blinds six horses and the psychiatrist who struggles to help him see what drove him to commit such a horrendous crime.

A newcomer named Peter Firth played the disturbed youth, Anthony Hopkins was the anguished shrink, and the show was famous for its sextet of strapping young men wearing metal equine-shaped masks to represent the horses, the climatic scene when the young protagonist wore nothing at all, and the questions the play posed about the relationships between madness, passion, creativity, and faith. I was blown away by it.

But I confess that’s not why I was so interested in seeing the revival of Equus that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre this week, following a celebrated run in London last year. Like everyone else, I wanted to see if Daniel Radcliffe, the young Brit who plays the boy wizard Harry Potter in the movies, could work magic on stage.

He does.

People may go to see Harry Potter pull a full monty. But what Radcliffe’s performance reveals is a naked intensity that makes it clear he’s a real actor as well as a movie star. And the grin on his face at the curtain call makes it equally apparent what pleasure he takes in being onstage. (Click here to read a profile of him in Details magazine, complete with a video interview and slide show of photos in his dressing room.)

Yet Radcliffe’s presence in the play may also upend it. In the original production, attention flowed towards the psychiatrist (Hopkins was succeeded by such heavyweights as Richard Burton and Anthony Perkins) but this time around, all eyes veer towards the boy and his story. Part of that is due to Radcliffe’s celebrity, another part to his brave and bravura performance but still another to the way that Richard Griffiths, the Tony Award winner two years ago for his role in The History Boys, plays the doctor.

My old pal Phil, who saw Equus a couple of weeks before I did, told me he missed the sexiness that Hopkins brought to the role. I didn’t mind that. In fact, I think the walrus-shaped Griffiths looks more like a man who has repressed his passions than his more glamorous predecessors did. But the talented Griffiths’ quiet, nuanced interpretation of the doctor’s own awakening lacks the thrill of an “aha” moment for me.

But even without that, I enjoyed this Equus, particularly its theatricality; we get so little of that in straight plays these days. Director Thea Sharrock smartly borrows a good deal of the stagecraft from the original production, even bringing back John Napier to do updated versions of the stylish costumes and sets he did 30 years ago. David Hersey’s lighting and Gregory Clarke’s sound design help create the appropriately unsettling mood.

The buff actors playing the horses are fittingly both scary and sexy. Anna Camp is lovely as the young girl who fancies the boy and unwittingly provokes the disaster. But not everything works. Kate Mulgrew as the judge who persuades the doctor to take the boy’s case delivers a cacophony of “aha” moments. Oskar Eustis, the head of the Public Theater, was sitting in front of me (the audience the night I attended was peppered with theater insiders—Joe Masteroff, the book writer of such classics as Cabaret and She Loves Me, was sitting on my right) and Eustis literally flinched each time Mulgrew spoke.

No matter. It is Radcliffe’s show. I invited my niece Jennifer to see Equus with me. She’s a rabid Harry Potter fan—having read all seven books and seen all five films—and so she went into the theater excited about being able to see the boy who plays him. But she left enchanted by the man he's become. “You know,” she said. “He’s a really good actor.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent review. I'm seeing "Equus" next week (Sat. night performance) and I can't wait!

Would also add that I love hearing about your experiences with the original versions of theatre productions. It's great to hear comparisons and how a production has benefited from a different take on it.