An actor leaves boyhood behind in ‘Equus’

NEW YORK - Let's get right down to it, the question people are asking: The answer is, yes, in Equus, Daniel Radcliffe is very good-looking in the buff.

You normally don't see big stars without a thread, so the play's Act 2 nude scene is a Broadway curiosity. But Radcliffe's no longer a child hanging around Hogwarts. He's 19, he's obviously been working out, and he's hugely talented in his first live stage role, even with clothes on. I should be so lucky.

If I were, I'd get to play on Broadway opposite sweet, alluring Anna Camp, who is also jaybirding on stage - and she, who appeared in Mike Nichols' production of The Country Girl last season, looks great. Everyone looks great, including the theatrical powerhouse Richard Griffiths (The History Boys), commanding for his bodily girth and theatrical worth, who does us the good turn of retaining his pants.

Now that that's out of the way, we can get on with the real sex of Equus, not just the body parts. Equus is full of it, repressed and projected in several ways, or sometimes disguised. The versatile Peter Shaffer, whose plays include an epic (The Royal Hunt of the Sun) and a historical drama (Amadeus), in the early '70s wrote Equus. It ran on Broadway for 1,200-plus performances, won the 1975 best-play Tony, and became a film.

Equus is a psychodrama about a teenage stable boy who develops a religion, complete with sexual ritual, based on horses. On one demonic night, he blinds six of them with a metal spike.

Shaffer begins the play as the boy is remanded to a mental hospital, and to the care of a respected - and reluctant - psychiatrist with troubles of his own. The first Broadway revival of Equus opened Thursday, a production that played last year in London with Radcliffe and Griffiths, by now old colleagues from Harry Potter films - as the title character and the odious Uncle Vernon, respectively.

On stage, they work together beautifully as the tormented boy and the personally scarred doctor, like the clasped but knotty fingers of two hands, folded.

Equus is, so far as I know, the English-speaking theater's only equine-erotic play, and when I saw it in the '70s, I - like many young theater-goers - responded to its sexual force. The kinkiness grabbed me. (I also was intrigued because I'd worked in a mental hospital as a teenager.)

Nowadays, I identify with that period of my early 20s in Kodak moments, and when I saw Equus the other day, I shrugged at its once-powerful sexual exposition. In that realm, the play is a little dated, and so am I.

A lot also has evolved in psychiatric practice in three decades. But Equus remains a solid story about a horrible situation, and this energized staging by Britain's Thea Sharrock - stark in John Napier's monochrome, simple setting - is beautiful for its imaginative use of the surroundings. The horses - men with metal horse heads who move on elevated horseshoes - are particularly effective.

Gregory Clark's sound design turns some of the script into melodrama - you feel at times that you're being cued to gasp. Kate Mulgrew's occasionally breathless interpretation of a bureaucrat doesn't help, nor do Carolyn McCormick's emphatic line readings as the boy's mother. But in the end, Equus is really about two characters, and Radcliffe and Griffiths bring them alive.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.


Playing at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Tickets: $61.50-$116.50. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or www.equusonbroadway.com.