THE BLOG

Stage Door: Equus, The Seagull

05/25/2011 12:50 pm ET

The story is dramatic and disturbing - a child psychiatrist tries to discover why a 17-year-old British boy blinded six horses. Based on a true incident, Equus explores the impulses of rational and irrational man. Healthy passions are pitted against twisted ones. But the power of Peter Shaffer's play, a revival of his 1973 success, is in the dark undercurrents of desire gone wrong. Both Richard Griffiths, as the worn-out psychiatrist, and Daniel Radcliffe, best-known as Harry Potter, give strong performances. Radcliffe proves himself a compelling dramatic stage actor, capable of handling difficult material with care.

Now at the Broadhurst Theater, Equus delves into the boy's psyche via the usual route: his parents. His mother (Carolyn McCormick) is a schoolteacher and religious Christian. Her love of Jesus - and his suffering - is transferred to her son, who embraces its more gruesome aspects. It is pain, not redemption, the boy craves.

When his atheist father (ably played by T. Ryder Smith), becomes horrified by his son's fervor, he replaces the provocative photo of the crucifixion, which Alan fixates on, with a portrait of a horse. Once the two obsessions converge, the boy's abject devotion is complete.

Given his equine worship, why does he commit such a horrendous crime? When the play first appeared in London, the author said he wanted to "interpret it in some entirely personal way. I had to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible."

Has he succeeded? The psychiatrist in Equus is enamored of Greek mythology (the set is a stripped-down Greek temple) and trapped in a loveless marriage. He sees in the troubled teen what he calls the "natural instinctive," versus what he sees in himself: a sad, contained conformity. Both suffer, in part, from the same malady: shame.

Indeed, the play is as much a slam on religious obsession and sterile domesticity as it is an exploration of primal urges. Equus is encased in a tense emotional atmosphere heightened by John Napier's sleek set. His shiny metal horse heads, and the six actors who neatly mimic equine movements, enhance the drama. There are no easy answers here; even the final monologue is a bit glib: What price the cure? But the tensions are real, and the production riveting.

So is The Seagull, Chekhov's superb exploration of art, love and emotional betrayal at the Walter Kerr Theater. Written in 1895, it's set on a Russian estate where a narcissistic group of family and friends is spending the summer. It opens as Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook), a tortured young man, is staging a play. His desire to establish himself as a modern dramatist is undermined by his mother Arkadina (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his competition with her lover, the writer Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard).

This production, an import from the West End, has a strong, capable ensemble, but boasts two outstanding performances. The first is Kristin Scott Thomas. As Arkadina, a middle-aged actress torn between a constant need for adulation and her concern, however, conflicted, for her son Konstantin, Thomas is astounding. She so embodies the role that every gesture, every line, is noteworthy. By contrast, Crook, who has a difficult task, appears occasionally overheated at turns, while Sarsgaard lacks the sexual appeal necessary for Trigorin.

The second outstanding performance is by Carey Mulligan as Nina, Konstantin's love interest, who becomes obsessed by Trigorin. Her ability to move from impressionable young girl to hardened-by-bitter-experience actress is exemplary. A demanding, nuanced role, Mulligan modulates it beautifully.

The Seagull is an emotionally complicated work; loaded with heartbreak and the kind of intense indifference to suffering that is a hallmark of Russian literature. Loaded with thwarted desire, emotional missteps and impassioned monologues on the state of contemporary drama, The Seagull is an intense theatrical experience. Its director, Ian Rickson, has produced a singular night in the theater.