Radcliffe demonstrates he can act on stage

September 25, 2008 5:17:08 PM PDT
Let's get to the reason you folks bought tickets: Daniel Radcliffe in the nude. And yes, he can act on stage - quite well, it turns out.The screen star of all those "Harry Potter" movies brings a disarming vulnerability and touching desperation to the role of Alan Strang, the tormented stable boy who blinds horses in "Equus," Peter Shaffer's hit of more than three decades ago. It's now being revived on Broadway after a successful London engagement last year.

The young actor's voice is strong, and Radcliffe doesn't shrink from the physicality of the part. That includes doffing all his clothes during the play's climactic moments. But then, he literally throws himself into the role in a production chock full of startling, imaginative theatrics.

Director Thea Sharrock, taking a cue from the original staging, has given the play a compelling, arenalike flavor. Some audience members sit in two tiers above the stage and look down on the action. The story is played out on a physically spare set (designed by John Napier) containing a collection of moveable black cubes that serve as furniture. The exquisite lighting, much of it ominous shadows, is by David Hersey.

"Equus" - the Latin word for horse - is as much a mystery as it is a melodrama rife with pyschosexual and religious overtones.

Why did the disturbed youth blind those magnificent creatures? It's a question asked by a psychiatrist (played by Richard Griffiths), a man amazed by the boy's fierce volatility. The doctor begins to debate his own arid existence - his "professional menopause" matched by an equally unsatisfying marriage.

When "Equus" opened on Broadway in 1974, it starred Anthony Hopkins as psychiatrist Martin Dysart. He was followed by other starry performers such as Richard Burton and Anthony Perkins.

Griffiths, a Tony winner for "The History Boys," doesn't exude that star wattage, but in his own way, his take on the role works.

The actor is deceptively low key, giving an avuncular, conversational performance. It's best moments occur quietly as he slowly earns the young man's confidence in an effort to learn why the lad committed such a heinous act.

The play strains in presenting Alan's turbulent home life, a strict overbearing father (T. Ryder Smith) and quivery, religious mother (Carolyn McCormick). It also falters during the wordy conversations between Dysart and a local magistrate (the overwrought Kate Mulgrew), the woman who sets the story in motion.

Far better are the brief scenes between Alan and the young woman who works at the stable. She's portrayed by the appealing Anna Camp, whose unaffected naturalness is a welcome anecdote to some of the play's more emotionally florid family confrontations.

Visually, there are some stunning effects. "Equus" celebrates ritual, particularly in its portrayal of the horses. These splendid steeds are mimed by a half-dozen actors wearing horse masks of caged steel and high steel hoofs. They stalk the stage at various points during the action. Their movements, created by Fin Walker, are sinuous, almost erotic in nature.

That eroticism is a big part of Shaffer's story: Alan's attraction to Nugget, the lead horse, portrayed by the commanding Lorenzo Pisoni. The horse's spirited freedom excites the young man, particularly when compared to the boy's emotionally claustrophobic family.

The animal unlocks a kind of untamed passion in the youth, a desire that the psychiatrist wants to control or at least understand. But that control comes at a price, a price the playwright seems to suggest at the end of the evening that may be too high.

"Equus" is playing a limited engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre through Feb. 8, 2009.