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Jun 21, 2010 5:49 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Powerful production of "Equus" at Guild Hall

Jun 21, 2010 5:49 PM

Let’s not mince words: The current production by Tony Walton of Peter Schaffer’s masterpiece, “Equus,” at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater in East Hampton is something of a masterpiece in itself, a powerful production of a powerful play—one that perhaps, a hundred years from now, will still be revived.

The sheer power and poetry of its dialogue, its flawless construction, its forward motion while it peels away layers and layers within the characters and within the nature of truth, is enough to make it immortal—so long as its productions are of the same elevated quality as the current one at Guild Hall. At the John Drew, the writing, the set, the lighting, the direction, and the acting are all of a piece, and that piece is lovely and will last a long time in the memory.

The play’s story, about a ghastly crime committed by a young boy on the horses that he was caring for and secretly riding, is merely a platform for Mr. Shaffer’s altogether absorbing study of the relationship between psychiatrist and patient, the sexual relationship between man and animal and woman, and the nature of truth as a palliative. Told with transfixing power, it is well deserving of its place as a timeless work of art.

In East Hampton, the casting is strong and true. There isn’t a character or a performance that isn’t enough to quiet an audience—like the one on the night I attended—to the level beneath that of hearing a pin drop.

Heather Wolensky’s set—sensitively and moodily and perceptively lit by Sebastian Paczynski—is a useful and arresting construct surmounted by a crowning sunburst and overseen by the powerful presence of Equus, the horse god whose import for the play is boundless. If the turntable of the set is perhaps a bit underutilized, its moment of use is climactically right and moving.

Amy Ritching’s costumes, particularly the cage-crowned, elevated horses, are expressive, and the horses—Chuck Novatka, Shashi Balooja, Taylor Proffitt, and JP Qualters—are mutely impressive. Nehassaiu deGannes is a sympathetic, quieting nurse; Terrence Michal McCrosson is a vital and overpowering mythical horseman, and Harry Dalton is effective as a reluctantly tale-telling groom.

In reviewing professional productions, I typically would not mention subsidiary characters, but Tony Walton has knit together such a tight and interlaced ensemble, it’s neither logical nor right not to mention the entirety of it.

Kathleen McNenny, as Heather Solomon, the reality-imbuing colleague of psychiatrist Martin Dysart, is a strong and essential anchor to the sometimes wild and woolly goings on between patient and doctor.

Perhaps Mr. Shaffer has made the boy’s parents a bit too obvious as the accessories to his psychosis. Jennifer Van Dyck, as Alan Strang’s mother, Dora, mines the conflicted character of what seems on the surface at the play’s beginning, as the protector of her son against his father’s unremitting rage. But she is not entirely so, and her partial resolution of this conflict in the waning moments of the play is shattering.

Steve Hamilton, as Frank Strang, the father, is unremitting in his bullheadedness, erecting fences around his son and allowing his own prejudices and predilections to govern his relationship with the boy. It’s a bloodcurdling characterization.

Georgia Warner, beautiful both in and out of her clothes, is intensely winning as the young girl who attempts to lead young Alan out of the wilderness of his agony. The turning point of a scene between the youngsters is gripping in its intense importance.

Ultimately, the play focuses upon its two leading characters, Alan Strang, the boy, and Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, Both are plum parts for actors, and neither Sam Underwood as the boy Alan nor Alec Baldwin as psychiatrist Martin Dysart disappoint in the minutest bit in their supercharged and piercing performances.

Mr. Underwood is a slim, gangling fellow with a face that is so unusual and interesting it’s difficult to tear one’s attention from it. He uses this face (and a lot more) to convey a universe of emotions and nearly hidden torment. It’s an intelligently molded performance of varying quantities of passion and wiliness in a character who is unwilling on the surface to let his subterranean feelings through, but who must, step by step, through the urging of his psychiatrist, move toward the truth.

The sessions between Alan and Dr. Dysart are by no means one way. Each unlocks the other, and this multiple revelation is beautifully and absorbingly conveyed by Mr. Baldwin, in a seminal portrayal, possibly the best of his career so far, of the equally agonized doctor, who must cure himself as well—and possibly before—the eventual move toward realization of his patient.

Mr. Baldwin, reveling in his rumpledness, plays upon his exquisite vocal instrument with wildly varying intensities and control, and it’s a thrilling experience to be in the presence of such fine acting. True, in the closing moments of the second act, he tips over into the operatic, with explosions of emphasis that make little sense, but the preceding two and half hours of his embracing excellence can forgive him anything.

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