Sometimes, a stare is just a stare. Several times in “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Tony-winning drama, characters talk about the special qualities of a young man’s stare. There’s something in it, something so deeply felt, so searing, that even his psychiatrist envies the intensity of emotion it contains or covers. But in this respectable but too studied East West Players staging of the play, the stare feels blank, and the production suffers mightily for this absence of passion.
The stare emanates from Alan Strang (Trieu D. Tran), a 17-year-old boy who has committed the heinous and inexplicable act of blinding half a dozen horses. He is brought to psychiatrist Martin Dysart, played in this production by George Takei of “Star Trek” fame.
As Dysart uncovers the story that led to the brutal lashing out, he investigates his own inner state as well, and is disturbed by the emptiness he finds. Yes, the boy’s passions have been misdirected — the conflict between his mother’s religiosity and his father’s socialism appear a root cause — but the good doctor still wishes he could feel the stir of this boy’s zeal.
In many ways, the play is a bit of a relic from the heyday of psychoanalysis. It’s got a lot of patient-doctor transference in it, going in both directions, and its analytical soliloquies tend toward the dry side.
Although it’s a bit dusty, it has remained popular, much produced at the university level, primarily because of its inventive theatricality.
Director Tim Dang is extremely faithful to Shaffer’s desired spare presentation. The actors remain onstage the entire time, and the playing space is unencumbered by more than a few benches. The horses are portrayed by shirtless and muscular men, on hoof-like lifts and wearing horse-heads made of wire. The images remain striking and highly erotic.
Dang employs some live drummers above the playing space, and they provide a welcome surge of occasional adrenaline.
But that’s the problem: The energy level of this production needs that kind of assistance, and it’s not enough. This is a straightforward, no-frills “Equus,” but there’s something deeply lacking at the core: the relationship between the psychiatrist and his troubled teenage patient.
Takei captures Dysart’s internal struggles — his speeches are presented elegantly and logically — although there is a sense that his discoveries about himself represent less an ongoing struggle than a conclusive defeat.
The primary deficiency here, however, must rest with the performance of Trieu D. Tran. He’s a highly capable young actor, but Dang has not evinced from him the expressive inner life that makes this play more than a psychological case study. Alan’s agony is just too understated, his emotions too controlled, his confusions too dulled.
His stare is just a stare.