BWW Special Feature: EQUUS' Baldwin, Schaffer & Underwood in Conversation
It's sad, but many times when the topic of Peter Schaffer's Tony Award Winning play Equus enters the conversation at cocktail parties, someone invariably remarks, "Isn't that the show about the naked English kid and the horses?" Well, on the surface, that's true, but the play is so rich in ideas and subtexts that it would take a blue ribbon panel to discuss the play and its content-to say nothing about its interpretations.
Such was the case on a recent sunny morning in East Hampton, Long Island. Guild Hall's John Drew Theatre will be presenting Equus for a rather lengthy run beginning on June 8th and ending July 3 rd. Gathered beside a table laden with cupcakes and croissants, were the production's director, Tony Walton; Alec Baldwin who will essay the role of Dr. Martin Dysart; Sam Underwood, the young English actor who will play the troubled Alan Strang; Josh Gladstone, the theater's artistic director; and the play's author, Sir Peter Schaffer. In attendance were journalists and photographers from all sides of the media.
Serving as the discussion's moderator, Josh Gladstone opened the program by asking Alec Baldwin what attracted him to the role of Dysart. Baldwin responded that Equus was a play he'd wanted to do for a long time commenting, "Peter's plays are considered some of the greatest dramatic works of the last 50 or 60 years, whether it's Amadeus or this play. It's a difficult play to do, I think. There are very challenging roles for Alan and the actor who plays Dysart. I tend to want to do a show and ask myself, ‘Is it hard?' I don't want to go out there and do something that's easy every night because it can get a little boring. You have to go out there and ‘be' and think there's a very good chance you may not get it right. There has to be some kind of a challenge and this is a very challenging piece."
Baldwin, who is also one of the play's producers, went on to explain how Equus, was chosen for presentation at the Guild Hall: "Tony [Walton] and I wanted to do a show here and work together. The conversation was about a lot about shows that were typically summer fare; Noel Coward, Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page and things like that. Finally Tony looked at me and asked what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I've always wanted to do Equus' and within a matter of days I was at his dining room table with Tony and himself [Peter Schaffer] but no one really said what we were doing. Tony and I were kind of positioning Peter so he might give us the rights to the play. I'm very, very grateful that he did"
Tony Walton originally didn't plan to do Equus in East Hampton. He wasn't keen on doing it and told Baldwin he was "completely nuts" because there had just been the "Harry Potter version" of it on Broadway. "Besides," he explains, "There's no reason to do it unless you have an unbelievably brilliant young foe. It turns out that actually that day I had just cast Sam Underwood in Candida [for the Irish Repertory Theatre] and Marchbanks is the other most difficult role for a young man. You'll recall that Marchbanks was Marlon Brando's first major part on Broadway opposite Katherine Cornell. In Underwood I realized I would have the right actor for Alan Strang." Later in the discussion, Walton would go on to call Underwood "a brand new genius."
Baldwin, who has been nominated for an Oscar as well as for a Tony Award, was awarded an Emmy for his work on television's 30 Rock, had great praise for his co-star, "You can tell when people are very good as actors. I mean, some of them will stumble along for five or ten years trying to take shape and then they ‘emerge'. When you work with them, you can tell they're good right away. The better ones are good pretty much from the get-go. And Sam Underwood is very good!" Baldwin emphasized his words by patting the knee of the young actor who was sitting beside him.
"I work hard!" was Underwood's sole retort.
Having the two leads cast was encouraging enough, but the even more extraordinary part was when the playwright had several thoughts trickling around in his head for the past 40 years or so and wanted to re-address some portions of the play. Baldwin states, " Internationally, Equus is known as one of the great, great plays of our lifetime and here we have the author who is still interested in fiddling with it. This is so exciting! He has, indeed, been working very hard on it."
Sir Peter Schaffer explained what he's been doing with this particular work: "It's something tedious for me to watch people enjoying the play and it's new to them. Well, I wanted something that's new to me! Let me get this straight: It's not an enormous re-write of the play at all. There is a core shift that flickers in and out. Be assured, I haven't arrived with an entirely different script. Not at all. I wanted to try different things along the path." Later it was learned that most of the revisions concern the character of Frank Strang, Alan's father.
Working with Schaffer, Walton and Baldwin is a humbling experience for Sam Underwood. "I'm still learning a lot and it hasn't really sunk in yet," the young actor comments. "In regard to this piece of theatre along with the challenge it presents and to meet that challenge every day has been absolutely extraordinary. To be part of a revised piece of the same play is an incredible opportunity for us all."
When questions were taken from the assembled crowd, the first one concerned whether there is any intentional form of homosexual attraction that Dysart has to Alan, especially at the end of the play. Specifically, could this be what Dysart refers to in his last soliloquy when he talks about having "this sharp chain in my mouth and it never comes out"? The play's author was adamant that such a relationship wasn't his intention, claiming that Dysart is soothing the young man at the denouement and not embracing him as some may be seeing it, but Baldwin had a slightly different take on the matter:
"Well, a lot of people could easily go that way," the actor explained. "We've talked about it. There's so much in the text that you can interpret. I've learned in the theatre, especially with an enormously well-written and smart piece like this one, that people are really listening. There's a percentage of the audience that is going to come and is not going to understand much of what is going on. That percentage is small. Most people know what the play is and they're going to really, really listen and you can never hope to influence what they're going to take away from it. They'll take away their own personal thing. I could do a certain set of things and one person would walk out of the room and say, ‘The psychiatrist is in love with Alan. It was apparent.' Or not, as the case may be. I have my own beliefs and I set sail in that direction."
The dialogue continued with Underwood offering his views on the matter: "We touched on that when I was working with the horses because there are men playing these horses and no matter what happens, there is Alan worshipping these men who are portraying horses on stage. How is that going to look from the audience? At the end of the day my thought process as Alan is that I'm doing something that's homosexual and I'm worshipping with my body, soul, mind and everything. If that comes across to anyone in a particular way, then that's what they take away from it. It's not up to me to enforce something onto an audience member. As long as I believe in what I'm doing, however it reads to anyone else. I mean, that's the beauty of theatre, surely; that everyone can come and take something different away from it. It's not just one thing. Certainly that's true of certain movies as well. That's the beauty of art. Everyone sees something different in it"
Baldwin stepped in again to comment, "When you look at certain playwrights, let's say where some of their work has sort of a gay tone to it, like McNally and some of the plays he wrote, those plays are about the human condition; they're not about gay peoples' lives. They just happen to be that tableau. Where a play is less of a play is when it's specifically written for a gay audience or when it's written for another specific audience. This is a play that I don't think of in those terms, but as a human condition that applies to everybody."
It was the play's director, Tony Walton, who reflected that one play which always enters this sort of discussion is Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "People love to imagine it's about a gay relationship, just transformed for the purposes of popular theatre. Albee, though, is very clear about it. He's said that he wouldn't have had a problem writing that play if that was the one I wanted to write and it's not. It's about this man and this woman and their heterosexual relationship."
Going on to another topic, Sam Underwood was asked about how he lives with the character of Alan Strang. Alan is somewhat likable even though he's committed an act that quite horrific. How can such an act be justified? Underwood paused for a moment and replied by saying, "The only thing that Alan knows about what he's done comes from this deep passion, this fiery passion. An actor can never judge a character he's playing... We can't afford to do that because of the human condition. People do bad things all the time and for whatever reasons. To try and analyze that or make logic out of it is silly. It's not worth doing. All I know is that it's come from this huge passion inside Alan. Passion is the worship and the only thing for Alan. That's all he's got. That's what he lives for. Where else can I try to live with that type of passion other than on stage in a play like this? I don't try to sit there and justify what he's done to these horses as a bad thing. It's draining at the end of this play to go on that journey but it's the biggest high ever!"
Baldwin interjected his own feelings on the subject, "When you have a great play and you know that it works, you just feel there's this tremendous opportunity for you; the words are there and the piece is there. I have this one image when I start a show at the beginning of the evening: I dream of surfing the wave all the way to the shore. I say all the lines as written, the way I believe they should be said and I'm fully connected with the people I'm doing scenes with. When I can really live that fully in a performance of a show, it's like the greatest experience anyone can have as an actor. I want to enjoy every minute of this because when it's over I have to realize that I may never say these words again."
Underwood agreed upon that point and added, "The process is, in its way, as much fun as the performance. So the moments in rehearsal when I hear Alec exclaim, ‘I got that! I got that!' brings such a feeling of excitement to the room--and that has been a continuously occurring thing no matter how horrible the event, there's something thrilling about planning how to represent it."
This production of features some very special casting. During the original 1975 Broadway production of the play, the role of Alan Strang was assumed by a young actor named Tuck Milligan who performed the part opposite Anthony Perkins' Dysart. In the Guild Hall version, Milligan will appear in the role of Harry Dalton, the stable owner. Has this intimidated Underwood? "Intimidated? No. It's been fascinating to talk to him about the original production and hear what that was like."
Equus was suggested by an account of the blinding of several horses in England and film director Sidney Lumet was planning to shoot the movie version very near to the actual locale. Tony Walton was the costume designer for the project. "Sidney had just had an enormous success with Murder on the Orient Express so he couldn't go back to England without being in an enormous tax situation. We got shifted to Ireland and wound up getting bombed out of Ireland with a heavy IRA attack. We wound up in Canada. What was very useful to me working on the film as a costume designer because it allowed me to get very close to the characters and discover who they are--otherwise there's a risk that the actors will have a meltdown the first time they see themselves in costume." All of his research comes to good use as he molds the piece in preparation for its East Hampton debut.
The play has always found audiences saying very odd things about it. Schaffer recalls, "In England the people who were upset about it were--being English and very sensitive people--angry because it was unkind to horses. In America, it caused a sensation of the wrong kind as well, because it was unkind to psychiatrists!"
It will be interesting to discover what odd things audiences will find to comment about at Guild Hall commencing on June 8th. Will they decry the play's alleged animal cruelty? Will they be offended by its representation of the psychiatric profession? Will they rail against its depiction of Fundamentalist Christianity? This production promises to be so dynamic and thoughtful that they surely won't be calling it "The play about the naked English kid and the horses." This Equus will enable them to realize it's substantially more than that.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street, East Hampton (Long Island) New York. The phone number is (631) 324-0806. To order tickets go to www.guildhall.org
Photos Courtesy of Hamptons.com