A Wizard Casts His Spell in the Stable: ‘Equus’

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The New York Sun

From Don Quixote to Forrest Gump, one fictional savant after another has carved his way (they’re almost always men) through Western culture, unfettered by the suffocating mores of society as he inspires the surrounding hordes of the “well.”

Unsurprisingly, the 1960s and early ’70s were a particularly fertile time for this reductive but nonetheless comforting thesis. The decade bracketed by the 1962 publication of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the 1973 London premiere of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” (now receiving a starry and more than serviceable Broadway revival) saw an enormous number of similarly themed projects. The New York stage alone featured three different “Cuckoo’s Nest” adaptations, as well as the short-lived Stephen Sondheim musical “Anyone Can Whistle,” in which the inhabitants of a town’s sanitarium intermingle fruitfully with the citizenry, and one of the decade’s most popular musicals, the “Don Quixote” adaptation “Man of La Mancha.”

Unlike those other “wise fool” entries, however, “Equus” focused less on the fool’s wisdom and more on the wise man’s folly. Mr. Shaffer’s oddly compelling ode to atavism, directed here a bit too flashily by Thea Sharrock, features as its narrator not the damaged Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe, better known as Harry Potter) but rather Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), the psychiatrist to whose care he has been entrusted. The 17-year-old who works part-time at a stable in southern England has savagely blinded six horses; Dysart has been asked to find out why.

At first the drama unfolds on a typical therapy-as-procedural path, as the recalcitrant Alan gradually yields glimpses of the signposts that led to his seemingly senseless act. (It’s a fairly predictable batch of sexual confusion, zealous Christianity, and parental hypocrisy.) But Mr. Shaffer, while giving ample attention and stage pizzazz to this plot thread, then shifts his attention to Dysart, a stifled aesthete who longs to throw over his “antiseptic proficiency” for the pagan vigor of ancient Greece.

The more Dysart learns about Alan’s baroque worship of the horses — Equus is the boy’s name for “the Godslave, Faithful and True” — the more he laments his own sterile life. “That boy has created out of his own drab existence a passion more ferocious than any I have known in any second of my life,” he cries to his co-worker, Hesther (a grievously misdirected Kate Mulgrew, who approaches her supporting role like a headlining grande dame). “And let me tell you something — I envy it.”

It is ironic and a bit unfortunate, then, that Mr. Radcliffe’s performance is by far the more controlled and Mr. Griffiths’s the looser. (Both are repeating the roles they played last year in London; the rest of the cast is new.) In general, however, Mr. Radcliffe accentuates the strains of evasion and scorn common to all adolescents without slighting the deeper veins of unrest. And even though Mr. Griffiths falls back on rumpled-academic shtick here and there — with much rubbing of the eyes and scratching of the head as he ruminates — he also gives Dysart a welcome burst of energy whenever his assumptions are jostled.

The climactic shift in tone from Alan’s Dionysian reverie to Dysart’s Apollonian regret happens far too abruptly at the end of this “Equus,” a jolt for which Ms. Sharrock must assume much but not all of the blame. (It comes immediately after Mr. Radcliffe’s endlessly hyped nude scene, one that he and his costar Anna Camp handle with finesse.) While John Napier’s original stage design remains haunting — a sextet of fine dancers led by Lorenzo Pisoni eerily impersonate the horses with the aid of skeletal masks and hoof-like platform footwear, a riff on the cothurni from Dysart’s beloved ancient Greece — the staging of Alan’s passionate equine encounters relies too heavily on musty psychosexual pageantry. (Ms. Sharrock’s corny sound effects and fog machines don’t help, though.)

These scenes may be responsible for the initial success of “Equus,” and the titillation factor has a lot to do with the revival’s success, but they haven’t aged particularly well. Nor have Dysart’s self-flagellating laments at delivering “the indispensable, murderous God of Health” to his damaged young patients.

Focus instead on the scene just before Alan’s cathartic return to the stables. Both patient and doctor have tacitly agreed to enable Alan’s confession through a placebo “truth drug.” In the minute or two after he takes it, the two men — the childless doctor and the boy desperate for parental approval, each nursing his own blend of foreboding and anticipation — share a cigarette and make small talk about Greek mythology and Dysart’s unprepossessing office. Mr. Shaffer’s teeth-gnashing falls away briefly, and it’s as if Ms. Sharrock and her two stars can feel the reins slacken.

Open run (235 W. 44th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-239-6200).

The New York Sun

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