PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Equus — The Stable and the Unstable

By Harry Haun
September 26, 2008

Equus, which is Latin for "horse," and Peter Shaffer, for "serious theatre," stampeded back to Broadway Sept. 25 on the heels of hype with Harry Potter, scruffied-up and unspectacled, in the saddle and Uncle Vernon as the shrink who straightens him out.

"It's great to be back at the Broadhurst," the 82-year-old playwright remarked on entering the theatre — the same theatre where his other Tony-winning triumph, Amadeus, took off. Plainly, Shaffer was pleased to be at the center of this theatrical storm brought on by employing players from the hugely popular Potter film series.

"Richard Griffiths and, of course, Daniel [Radcliffe] have bonded, haven't they?" he beamed. "I think it's obvious on stage." Five films in a row and a sixth due out next July will do that to actors, and it's fortunate that these two have had that prior history since Shaffer's story is far stranger and darker than J. K. Rowling's wizardry.

It's based on fact, in fact, Shaffer points out in a program note Playbill has reprinted from the play's original London premiere in 1973. He relays how, during a drive in the country with a journalist friend two years earlier, they happened to pass a horse stable, reminding the friend of a horror story he had heard at a recent dinner party.

It concerned the trial of a troubled youth who'd gone berserk and blinded a stableful of horses. Shaffer filled in the gaping blanks with electrifying theatre. In one corner is the passionately unhinged young man, Alan Strang, who at first speaks only in musical jingles; in the opposite corner is a burnt-out shell of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who begins to envy the boy's passion. As he sadly assesses, "Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created."

In the original 1974 Broadway production, directed by a Tony-winning John Dexter, it was the boy's play, and Peter Firth was the award contender for Leading Actor rather than Anthony Hopkins, who movingly advanced the case of the stymied shrink. In this edition helmed by a 30-year-old rising star of British theatre, Thea Sharrock, it's the internal angst of the psychiatrist that reaches the audience.

Interestingly, Griffiths had to be talked into taking on the role. He too is making a sentimental return to the Broadhurst, where he last held forth in Tony-winning form as the life-teaching schoolmaster of The History Boys — and, he explained, "I didn't want to come back to Broadway with something that'd disappoint people."

An expert at the heartfelt throwaway, Griffiths has ample opportunity to exercise his skill and display vulnerability. "I think that's the point. What Dysart does is infuse the text with feeling. There's this huge intellectual story, and underneath it are wild, riotous feelings. He's got them as well as the boy. That's what happens in the play."

It was Griffiths who suggested Radcliffe take a look at "A Clockwork Orange" for additional character research, and the 19-year-old actor obliged —and benefitted.

"Initially," Radcliffe said, "it was very helpful because of the scene early on where Malcolm McDowell is singing 'Singin' in the Rain' while he's kicking a guy half to death — because my character, Alan, comes in and sings the jingles. I wanted it to be that kind of intense aggression, masked by songs. That was a very good point of reference. But also, as I watched the film, it became apparent that the stories are similar. In essence, thematically, it's just about society taking away that which makes an individual an individual in order to make him fit into that society."

The teamwork and trust between the two actors got them across what was for both of them pretty dicey, no-net turf. "Working with Richard is fantastic," the lad relayed. "He's brilliant — a real force of a man and just the nicest guy in the world."

Sporting what looked like his first attempt at a beard, young Radcliffe ran the press gauntlet at the Chelsea Piers after-party in the easy stride of a seasoned campaigner.

When one reporter teasingly inquired if he was "developing a special relationship" with Lorenzo Pisoni, who plays the horse he has a hot 'n' heavy affinity for, Radcliffe responded in kind: "Ah, yes, we're getting along very well indeed. I've written really, really, deeply sexual things on the card I gave him on opening night. He's truly a remarkable man, and, if I was gay or female, I would really go for him."

Glenn Close, Dominic Cooper, Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen, Haley Joel Osment, Lili Taylor, Kathleen Turner and James Nederlander, Jr., Christy Carlson Romano, James Lipton, Annie Dorsen with Michael Berresse and Walter Bobbie, Judith Light, Claudia Shear and Leigh Silverman with Eisa Davis.
photos by Aubrey Reuben
And if one asks him at point-blank range why he'd play a character who indulges in a catalog of Potteresque no-nos — nudity, smoking, watching porn, using the F-word, attempting to do the F-word and driving a spike into the eyes of six horses when he sexually short-circuits — Radcliffe replies, simply, in italics: "Because it's a great play."

And furthermore: "The thing about the Harry Potter following — because it is based around books — they're a really literate, smart bunch of people so there are very few Harry Potter fans out there who object to me doing this. Most of them are getting really into this, and, if I'm bringing new people to theatre, then that is a good thing."

Last seen in a hoop shirt and billowing ruffles for The Country Girl, Anna Camp is reduced to the basics to share the au naturel love scene with Radcliffe. Basically, it's a Teflon nude scene, with strategic lighting and ravishing shadows — nothing sticks to the roof of the mind. But if you're doing it, she said, it takes a lot of getting-use-to.

"We took our time with it in rehearsal and made sure there was only a few people in the room when we first did it. We went slowly and talked — we did a lot of talking — before we got to the acting. Thea really helped out a lot, and Dan made me feel comfortable. It's exciting now. I'm not as nervous to do it as I was — and I was the first few times. Incredibly. I'm not the type of person who's like that. I had to overcome things with this part. You ignore the fact there's an audience there and focus on the other person. I focused on Dan and telling the story and being in the moment."

The other major female character in the play — the magistrate who asks Dysart to apply his healing arts to the deeply disturbed youngster — is crisply dispatched by Kate Mulgrew with slight telltale traces of her Hepburnese: "All my scenes are with Dr. Dysart, played beautifully by Richard Griffiths, so I couldn't be better or happier," she said. "I thoroughly enjoyed this. It has been an honor, a privilege and a delight."

T. Ryder Smith and Carolyn McCormick as the boy's dysfunctional parents deepen the play's mystery in sidelight appearances. And Pisoni, whose finely tuned physicality is his signature trade, is doubly cast as a horseman and a horse, Nugget, who is the favorite of the boy. He heads a herd of six dancer-horses who move about the stage with uncanny equestrian grace. The movement, Pisoni said, was the work of Fin Walker. "She's a choreographer from South England and she's incredible."

Not only did director Sharrock not see John Dexter's vigorously theatrical original production, she hadn't seen the light of day. "I was merely a twinkle in my father's eye." But she did collaborate with the play's original set and costume designer John Napier — hence, the return of the wire horse heads.

The amphitheatre look of the set seems like a dark version of the Copenhagen set. "Actually," she said, "it is less influenced by Copenhagen and more of a continuation of the inspiration John had from the original production. Originally he had the audience sitting on stage, and for this one he wanted them to be up high as if were like an operating theatre."

Three women from the original Broadway cast of Equus — Roberta Maxwell, Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen — led the opening night's guest list.

Also in attendance: Oscar Isaac, American Buffalo-bound Haley Joel Osment, Glenn Close (who resumes filming her Emmy-winning role on "Damages" Tuesday), Kathleen Turner, Michael Berresse, White Christmas director Walter Bobbie, Blair Brown, Lili Taylor, Christy Carlson Romano (making the Beauty and the Beast-to-Avenue Q transition on Monday), Judith Light of small screen ("Ugly Betty") and big screen ("Save Me"), Claudia Shear, Hairspray/ Annie scripter Thomas Meehan (dusting off Death Takes a Holiday for a November workshop and a Roundabout slot the following fall), James Lipton, director Leigh Silverman, Byron Jennings and one of The History Boys, Dominic Cooper (who's set to be the love interest for Helen Mirren's Phaedra next summer in London).