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Stage Review

Radcliffe bares soul in 'Equus'

Daniel Radcliffe (left) as Alan Strang and Lorenzo Pisoni as the beloved horse Nugget in ''Equus.'' Daniel Radcliffe (left) as Alan Strang and Lorenzo Pisoni as the beloved horse Nugget in ''Equus.'' (carol rosegg/sam rudy media via ap)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / September 26, 2008
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NEW YORK - Yes, as you've probably heard, in "Equus" you can see a movie star naked. But you can also see something far more interesting: the bared psyche of a genuine actor.

Daniel Radcliffe, best known as the film face of Harry Potter, has generated plenty of buzz for the revival of Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, first in London's West End and now on Broadway, where it opened last night. What must not get lost in the cloud of hype is the real news, which is that Radcliffe, despite limited experience in live theater, turns out to be a stage actor of extraordinary presence, generosity, and power. He's the real thing.

What's also interesting is to see how the play itself does and does not hold up. In its day, Shaffer's story of a disturbed stable boy who blinds six horses and of the child psychiatrist who treats him was genuinely shocking. It also meshed smoothly into the mood of the times, with its argument that psychiatry, though it may allow people to fit more easily into society, robs them of an essential wildness. Be passionately alive or live a normal life: Choose one.

In 2008, that doesn't feel like a fresh dilemma, nor does it seem central to the social conversation in the same way it did then. Nevertheless, director Thea Sharrock and her design team - including John Napier, who created the original metal horses' heads and wisely uses those unforgettable icons again - find majestic, spooky, and striking ways to embody the themes onstage. So, despite the occasional moments when Shaffer's talkiness makes the not-so-new ideas feel older still, the production builds a sustained emotional power.

In this Radcliffe's performance is central. Initially quiet, with an inchoate fury bubbling just below the surface, his Alan Strang is a troubling young enigma - to us, to the doctor treating him, and to everyone else who crosses his path (not least his parents, played with tightly coiled emotion by Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith). As his story unfolds, however, he opens up into a Dionysian figure of erotic desire and wordless terror, a truly primeval evocation of the horrifying passion of centaurs and their ancient gods. It's a strange, brave, and fascinating portrayal.

Richard Griffiths, as Dr. Martin Dysart, is more problematic. Forsaking the tightly buttoned suits of earlier actors in the part - because, he has said, he doesn't think a modern child psychiatrist would wear so "authoritarian" a costume - Griffiths becomes a rumpled and untidy presence, which seems at odds with Dysart's fears that he's just a buttoned-up bourgeois bore. He also delivers many of Dysart's loftier musings in so casual a tone that they lose some of their resonance; this helps avoid the pretentiousness to which Shaffer's writing can succumb, but it also saps some of its strength.

Similarly, Kate Mulgrew seems too emotionally flat as the magistrate, Hesther Saloman, who first brings Alan to Dysart and then serves as a kind of sounding board for the doctor's ruminations and fears. Maybe Sharrock is trying to heighten the contrast between these hyperverbal adults and the hyperphysical Alan Strang, but as a result the adults' verbose scenes can lack tension and snap.

Such objections vanish, however, whenever Alan's dreamlike horses take the stage. Fin Walker has choreographed the horses - six men in chestnut-brown bodysuits and velvety-looking pants, with those eerily godlike masks and some elegant metal hooves - with subtle allusions to equine snorts and prances; Lorenzo Pisoni, as the most beloved of the horses, Nugget, is particularly regal.

Radcliffe's celebrated nude scene, with the pert and chipper Anna Camp as the girl who fatefully attempts to seduce Alan on a hay bale, has an undeniable beauty. But it's his scenes with the horse, stranger and more hauntingly erotic, that rightfully linger in the mind. "Equus" doesn't really make sense, any more than the nonsense language that Alan makes up to talk about his horses. Watching him embrace that steamy creature, though, we know exactly what it means.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

Equus

Play by Peter Shaffer

Directed by: Thea Sharrock. Design, John Napier. Lights, David Hersey. Sound, Gregory Clarke. Movement, Fin Walker.

At: Broadhurst Theatre, New York. Tickets, $61.50-116.50, 800-432-7250, www.telecharge.com

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