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.

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Joe Panarello is one of those people who have most certainly been born with theater in their blood. As an actor, Joe has played such varied roles as Harry Roat in Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark, Jimmy Smith in No, No Nanette and Lazer Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof a vehicle he's performed in several times and designed the sets for on one occasion. He's also directed productions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and Henrich Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Joe is a respected author and although his latest work, The Authoritative History of Corduroy won't be published until this summer, it is already being translated into several different languages by a group of polyglot nuns in Tormento, Italy.. The proceeds from their labors will go to the restoration of the nearby Cathedral of Gorgonzola.