Broadway Theater Review: EQUUS (Broadhurst Theatre)

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by Harvey Perr on October 17, 2008

in Theater-New York


It may be an act of intellectual suicide to reduce a discourse on Peter Shaffer’s Equus to a discussion of male genitalia, but there really doesn’t seem to be any other excuse for this revival than to provide a venue for teenage girls (and, very possibly, boys), in a highly agitated state of their sexual development, to seize the opportunity to take a prolonged gander at Harry Potter’s dick. Or, to be more polite, Daniel Radcliffe’s penis. Amen.

I have always been more than a little suspicious of the Shaffer aesthetic and its intense concern with the dawning mediocrity of thorough professionals when confronted by madmen and geniuses, whether it is Salieri facing Mozart in Amadeus or, in the case of Equus, the psychiatrist Martin Dysart trying to understand why Alan Strang, who has blinded a stable full of horses in a moment of divine hysteria, is so much closer to inspiration than he could ever be. The focus (and the insight) is spent almost entirely on the symbol of mediocrity, while we remain infinitely more attracted to the madman. And Shaffer never seems to take into account that not all geniuses are mad or that all madmen are geniuses or that a professional can be excellent at what he does even if he doesn’t enter the stratosphere that he imagines the “other” does. It feels like the outline for a serious exploration of a paradoxical situation, but it seems to boil down, in the final analysis, to middle-brow nit-picking.

If Equus got away with this in its original incarnation, it was because the sexuality between Strang and his horse Nugget was so vividly portrayed and because it subsequently created a tension between Strang and Dysart that had strong homosexual currents that was, to a degree, fascinating to watch. And it had a great deal to do with the profound connection between its actors, which made it even that much more interesting.

But, under Thea Sharrock’s flaccid and unimaginative direction, the action seems a bit straightforward and far too casual, as made manifest, in particular, by the uninvolving nonchalance the otherwise estimable Richard Griffiths brings to the role of Dysart, which, in turn, gives Radciffe, as Strang, very little to work against. Nor is the production helped by the other performances which are either overwrought (as in the case of Kate Mulgrew) or not precisely located regionally (Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith as Strang’s parents don’t seem to have ever lived in the same house with Radcliffe). The recreation of the blinding of the horses is the only moment that generates anything approximating electricity, but, in the midst of such understatement and uncertainty, it feels a bit like so much sound and fury, signifying less than nothing.

Which brings us back to Radcliffe’s nudity. In the play’s central scene, which arrives just before the first-act curtain, when Strang relates to Dysart his palpably increasing passion while riding Nugget, he should either, adhering to Shaffer’s original intention, mime the act of undressing, or, even better, strip down to utter nakedness. To merely remove one’s shirt feels like pandering, like a conscious act of visualis interruptus. When, in the second act, Strang is seen in full nudity, in his failed attempt to have a sexual relationship with Jill, a young woman intent on seducing him, it now seems a bit forced, whereas if we had seen him naked in the throes of his real passion, the second-act nude scene would have much more power. Why, one might ask, does he get naked at last when he doesn’t get naked at first? Attention is called not to the reasons why nudity is necessary here, but rather to the nudity itself. One hopes that all those teen-agers leave satisfied. I can’t imagine there are too many others who will.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St
ends on February 8, 2009
for tickets, call 212-239-6200
or visit Equus on Broadway

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