To make Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” more than an unusual why’d-he-do-it, you have to have a leading character compelling enough to make his belabored middle-age angst forgivable. Unfortunately for this summer production in the Massachusetts Berkshires, the doctor (Victor Slezak) is out, but the patient is very much in, with a strong and sympathetic performance by “Queer as Folk’s” Randy Harrison.
Slezak is Dr. Dysart, an overworked and overwrought child psychiatrist at a provincial hospital. He’s going through personal and professional menopause when he encounters a patient whose extreme case awakens in him untapped primal passion.
But a pedestrian perf depriving the character of intellectual vigor, humor and drive cripples the play’s gait. It also highlights the work’s shortcomings. Here the lead character is less a searcher of alternative gods than an academic bore who drones on about the glories of antiquities.
The play lacks the punch it had years ago when John Dexter’s stark staging and the shocking story line with its Psychology Today patina (not to mention the nudity and expressionistic depictions of studly actors as horses) first dazzled auds.
Now it’s more of a classic Brit mystery with well-timed revelations, connect-the-dots motivation and eyebrow-arching exchanges. (When Dysart tells a colleague that he is thinking about giving his patient a placebo, she responds, “You mean a harmless pill?”)
There are still nicely crafted parallels between patient and doctor, their shared dreams and nightmares, their sense of displacement, their search for a purer purpose. Shaffer also none-too-subtly compares the rituals, sacrifices and incantations of Christianity — including its S&M homoeroticism — with worshipful believers of a decidedly different mythology. But with such an indulgent and uninteresting guide as Dysart, these revelations are more prosaic than profound.
However as Alan Strang, the 17-year-old stable boy who inexplicably blinded six horses with a metal spike, the blond and beatific Harrison takes the production on a glorious ride. He clearly breaks down the adolescent obsession that makes unbridled devotion the most dangerous of drugs.
John Curless makes Alan’s working-class father contemptible and sad. Pamela Payton-Wright nicely straddles the conflicts of motherly love and religious zeal. Tara Franklin as the self-possessed Jill, with whom Alan has a disastrous sexual encounter, is sharply drawn.
As the magistrate who implores Dysart to take the boy’s case, Roberta Maxwell, who played Jill in the original Broadway production, gives a perf both dignified and warm. Steve Wilson provides egalitarian dash as the horseman on the beach and the equestrian panache as the noble stallion Nugget. (Costumer Jess Goldstein’s horse heads are handsome and haunting.)
For this proscenium production (Dexter famously staged it in a wooden square), designer Beowulf Boritt crowds the stage with rolling tiled pillars and a wall of hay that takes a tumble at the play’s violent climax — sort of the last straw of dramaturgy. That’s followed by a blaze of blinding lights that scorches the aud’s retinas and diffuses the last soliloquy of the play. Helmer Scott Schwartz also milks Shaffer’s ocular symbolism with overly watchful direction wherein everyone seems to be staring at each other.