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Daniel Radcliffe receives a Broadway tutorial in 'Equus'

November 15, 2008 |  7:00 am

Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths in 'Equus'

Daniel Radcliffe's Broadway debut has been generating most of the buzz for "Equus," Peter Shaffer's 1973 psychodrama about a disturbed adolescent boy who has been placed in a psychiatric hospital for blinding six horses.  The presence of the "Harry Potter" star -- not just in the flesh but also in the buff for one dimly lighted scene -- has spurred his global army of young fans to temporarily transfer their interest from the screen to the stage (although there weren't many in evidence at the Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday night, but then most allowances couldn't cover the ticket price). 

Radcliffe's choice of material makes a lot of sense on paper: The play ran for nearly three years on Broadway in the '70s, and the character of Alan Strang is not just a psychopath -- he's a psychopath from a bourgeois background with a very un-bourgeois secret.  Not to give too much away (or psychoanalyze without a license), this withdrawn kid is seeking (before his violent spree, anyway) a kind of religious ecstasy through interspecies communion.         

But there's a role in "Equus" that's more fascinating than the one being essayed by Radcliffe. And though the character doesn't wield a metal spike, it has attracted such intrepid talents as Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton.

Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist trying to unearth the motive for this shocking crime, has a wandering introspective mind that isn't afraid of profoundly questioning the social and psychological foundations of his own identity.  And as played by Richard Griffiths, in a performance that confirms his virtuosic command of refined language and probing thought, the good doctor is the chief reason for catching this rather dated play.

Sitting through "Equus" today is a bit like tracing the life cycle of psychoanalysis. The drama begins with a reaffirmation of the value of listening to the pain of others, proceeds to get bogged down in the quicksand of family dysfunction and sexual neurosis, and climaxes in an extreme ritual that is partly redeemed by the playwright's respect for everyday enigma and the power of words to illuminate scattered patches of darkness.

The episodes with Alan's mother (Carolyn McCormick) and father (T. Ryder Smith) are as inert and reductive as the flashback moment of erotic humiliation involving a mature-for-her-years stable girl (Anna Camp) that drives the play's protagonist to his accountable deed of animal cruelty.  The actors, under the direction of Thea Sharrock, are almost heroically credible, but there's only so much that can be done with this kind of old-fashioned psychological baggage.       

Still, Dysart's series of dialogues, not just with his patient but also with his friend and colleague Hesther Saloman (a fervent Kate Mulgrew), have an eloquence and depth of insight that shouldn't be lightly passed over. Radcliffe's scratchy vocal technique needs work, but he burrows into his role with an unflinching determination.  And his interaction with the horses, which are brought to life by actors with a suggestive physical grace that reminds us of Shaffer's interest in the '60s theater of Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Joseph Chaikin, is marked by a ferocious commitment to his character's obsession.   

Unfortunately, the play can no longer conceal its flaws under an avant-garde cover. What was once stylistically daring has become less attention-grabbing through decades of post-'60s experiment. It's the human core that monopolizes interest now, and that core has layers of faded fabric muffling it.          

It's hard to imagine a major revival of "Equus" without the celebrity pixie dust of Radcliffe, who earns a solid B in his Broadway tutorial. But Griffiths, following his bravura, Tony-winning turn in "The History Boys," puts on another master class that should open up to his "Harry Potter" costar a whole new world of incantatory magic.   

-- Charles McNulty   

Photo: Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths in "Equus" on Broadway. Credit: Carol Rosegg      


 
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