Friday, January 9, 2009

NYC Trip - Equus, aka Harry Potter Gets Naked

In recent years, Broadway has catered to the star-struck touriste with countless revivals starring Hollywood film actors whose names are usually larger than their talent. With this cynical view, I attended what is most likely the most sensational of all big-name vehicles, Equus starring Harry Potter... er, Daniel Radcliffe. Whereas most of these star turns only prove the fact that Hollywood actors' most useful training occurs in a gym, I must admit that Radcliffe delivers an impressive performance. However, the hype in this show is twofold and the criticism is binary. The true starring role of this play is Dr. Dysart portrayed by TONY-award winner Peter Griffiths. Whereas Radcliffe certainly has the celebrity status to deliver a mediocre performance and still sell tickets, he does not and yet Mr. Griffiths all but phones in his role. Griffiths' bloated hype as an actor's actor is minimized by his bloated physique which provides serious obstacles in his performance. As I age I always hope for moments of inspiration in the theatre where more mature stars outshine younger celebrities. Unfortunately, in the case of Equus, this does not come true.

If you're not familiar with Peter Schaffer's 1973 psychological drama, where have you been? The story basically revolves around child psychologist Dr. Dysart (Peter Griffiths) and his treatment of a disturbed 17-year-old, Alan Strang (Radcliffe). A note from the playwright questions whether or not the play is as timely as it was in 1973, a question to which I must opine. In a post-modern era of school shootings, gang warfare, drugs, et al., it is difficult to take the play as seriously as it was first intended and received. Likewise, it is difficult to implicate Alan's social upbringing as the cause for his sociopathic behavior given contemporary psychology. However, this fact maybe exacerbated by the drastic casting choices in Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith as Alan's parents. One wonders if these lesser actors were chosen in order to highlight the celebrity talent of Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Radcliffe. Ms. McCormick's affected voice and emotions not only defy believability, but border on boredom. Her monologue in Act I - a typical turn for virtuosic acting - fell flat to the point of watch gazing and seat-shifting. The casting of Ms. McCormick as Strang's mother was most unguided.
Not only is the casting of Mr. and Mrs. Strange strange, but virtually every supporting cast member falls flat of the leading players. Kate Mulgrew - who often serves as a celebrity pull herself due to her recurring role on Star Trek - is quite simply atrocious. When she's not mumbling her lines, she's over-enunciating, all the while striking exaggerated gestures and poses as if she's begging for some of Harry Potter's attention. Perhaps Ms. Mulgrew has been playing Katherine Hepburn so long (in Tea at Five) that she's forgotten the difference between imitating and acting. Anna Camp as the nubile love interest, Jill, is simply too sweet and corn-fed to be believable in the raciness the role requires. The other cast members are sufficient in near cameo-sized roles, of particular note is Lorenzo Pisoni's biceps.
Overall, the production is a fabulous spectacle both serving the story and wowing with sensual acumen. Director Thea Sharrock combines fantastical productions elements simultaneously updating the play while serving its original minimalism. The movement choreography by Fin Walker as embodied by six burly actors is at best a stunning recreation of equine behavior. At times, the choreography over-serves its necessity, but generally it is a beautiful compliment to the haunting story. The lighting and sound design also deserve honorable mention for achieving both subtle and dramatic transformations. I may not have been one of the throngs of teenaged girls (and sissies) screaming for Harry Potter at the curtain call, but I joined the well-deserved standing ovation for an excellent Broadway show.

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