NEW YORK — He smokes, he swears, he watches porno and he's nude — and yet that's not nearly what makes playing Alan Strang in "Equus" the most adult role Daniel Radcliffe has played. Demonstrating a range beyond his years during his opening night Thursday, the celeb-filled audience called it his "breakout.""I was actually in the third row," said Christy Carlson Romano, who starred alongside Shia LaBeouf in the Disney Channel sitcom "Even Stevens." "You could smell everything. It was sexy and super-stimulating, and Daniel did an astounding job."
Romano was sitting in front of Haley Joel Osment and to the left of "Inside the Actors Studio" host James Lipton. Sitting nearby were Kathleen Turner, Lili Taylor, Glenn Close, Judith Light and Dominic Cooper. Up in the balcony was "Project Runway" designer Austin Scarlett, who was dressed for the occasion in jodhpurs and riding boots.
"The audience in the U.S. has so far been incredible," Radcliffe said. "There's a couple of laughs we don't get in England," he said of performing the play in London's West End versus performing on Broadway, "only because the Americans get it so much."
The play is a look at the therapy a disturbed young boy receives after he inexplicably blinds six horses. To play Strang, Radcliffe has to exhibit both hostility and vulnerability. As the play progresses, he begins to open up and explain, through flashbacks, how he views horses — especially one named Nugget (played by Lorenzo Pisoni) — as his gods, slaves and lovers. At times, Radcliffe is crumpled up in the fetal position as his doctor, mother and father discuss his condition. Other times, he has nightmares and outbursts, sometimes singing commercial jingles instead of answering straightforward questions.
Radcliffe said one thing that makes live theater so exciting for him ("I'm still buzzed from the adrenaline!") is the amount of chances for slip-ups — and his opening night wasn't without a few.
"During the ride," he said, "the microphone inside of Lorenzo's horse head actually came loose and started hitting him in the head, which was quite funny. And at one point, the clips which I clamp him in with didn't go in right and subsequently would not come out, so I had to leave him onstage in a blackout while the technicians actually got him off at the intermission. So most of the mistake moments involved Lorenzo, but he's cool."
"I don't want to be that guy who drops Harry Potter!" Pisoni laughed. "So I certainly scuff my shoes to make sure I don't slip. I don't have a lot of experience in platform shoes, so the little six-pound heels without the heel [that make up the hooves]? It certainly has taken a little getting used to. And the set is slanted, and we have to have our arms behind our backs [to resemble horses]. Add in the masks, and it gets a little treacherous. But it's working out. Everything's all right. I'm used to it now."
One of the big differences between the London production and this one is how the horses interact with Radcliffe, since director Thea Sharrock and choreographer Fin Walker wanted to make this show more "visceral." "We tried to find other moments within the play where we could slowly incorporate the horses," Sharrock said, "so the notion of Equus grows into the finale."
That finale includes the much-talked-about nude scene from the young star. Radcliffe is not alone in baring it all on stage, since it's an aborted love scene with his co-star Anna Camp, who plays stable girl Jill Mason. "Nobody ever mentioned the chick getting naked!" Romano said. "I was not prepared for that. I was actually kind of alarmed. She's doing the whole thing!"
"He carries the show, and he's Harry Potter, so everybody's so focused on him and waiting for him to take his clothes off," Camp said. "But it's really about my character being the one in control and guiding him through the entire thing. It's so important to the story that we do take our clothes off, because it's about confronting him with complete sexuality, and that's how the last event of the play can occur, only if he's truly, truly confronted."
Sharrock called the scene "beautiful" and "low-key," while other actors called Radcliffe's choice a brave one. "The material is what's crucial here," Osment said. "And it's a choice many actors have to make. 'Is it what I need to do? Is it necessary for this character?' And in this case, it was. I think he gave a wonderful performance, and I'm sure he's going to gain the respect of a lot of people with it."
"By the time the nudity happened, it wasn't about the nudity at all," Romano said. "It was more about the art. I was riveted."
"He's proved he's not Harry Potter, he's Daniel Radcliffe," Sharrock said. "He's not a star, he's an actor."
Since "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was delayed from its planned November release, Radcliffe no longer has to juggle being a movie star and a Broadway actor this fall — he can concentrate on the play, instead of promoting the movie at the same time. "It's a disaster for the fans, and I totally appreciate that," he said. "I am very, very sorry for them, but it was worked out very nicely for the run of 'Equus.' "