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Equus At Guild Hall: Baldwin And Underwood At Full Artistic Gallop

Originally Posted: June 14, 2010

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

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Horses, Harry Dalton (Tuck Mulligan), Alan Strang (Sam Underwood), Nugget (Terrence Michael McCrossan), Jill Mason (Georgia Warner) in "Equus" by Peter Shaffer at Guild Hall. (Gary Mamay)

East Hampton - Guild Hall is one of the jewels of our very rich East End arts culture - a formidable presence in the Hamptons for over 75 years, that jewel has never shone as bright as it did on Friday, June 11 in celebration of its 2010 season as patrons and fans of this storied institution gathered for the opening night benefit performance of "Equus" starring Alec Baldwin and Sam Underwood.

Rapidly rising star Sam Underwood with his lovely and charming mother Angela. (Douglas Harrington)

The evening began with a poolside 5:30 p.m. cocktail party with light supper at the East Hampton home of Michael Clifford and Robert Levy. The beautiful house, with exquisitely manicured property, was the perfect backdrop for the Guild Hall benefactors to chat and socialize before the performance. Baldwin and Underwood both made a pre-show appearance and graciously posed for photos with numerous fans.

Host Clifford, who is a Guild Hall Trustee and Chairman of the Theatre Committee, explained "Speaking with people about what they want to see at Guild Hall, it came to light that people really want a wide array of entertainment. So we are doing a number of things this year for the first time. We made a big commitment to children's programming. We have a play by Daryl Roth who produced 'Wit' and 'Proof.' She gave us an awarding winning children's play called 'Dear Edwina' and we are building a fundraiser for children's programming around that in August. We have Darren Star doing a film screening series of directors and the films that inspired them and, of course, getting Alec to do 'Equus' was a huge coup for us. We were actually planning for light summer fare, but he was so persuasive and I think having his commitment to this project made the difference. We are really exited about the breath of the programming this year."

That breath of programming Clifford mentioned also includes staged readings by the likes of Mercedes Ruehl and Harris Yulin. Comedy in conversation with Joy Behar and Meredith Vieira and what is billed as a "bipolar" evening of comedy with Florence Henderson and Bruce Vilanch. A season filled with music that includes divas Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers and Christine Ebersole, among many other performers and groups. Of course, the art galleries of Guild Hall will have numerous exhibitions and lectures including the 64th Annual Clothesline Art Sale.

"Equus" stars Sam Underwood and Alec Baldwin at the apres-performance meet and greet reception in the Guild Hall patio garden.

Also on hand at the pre-show cocktail party with his lovely wife Peggy was network television president and CEO Henry Schleiff who commented on the challenges facing the arts during the recent downturn in the economy, noting, "The essence of it is that even though the economy may change and be cyclical, the one thing that is a constant I think has been Guild Hall as a beacon for the arts in this community for so many years. Now, as a result of an entirely refurbished theatre and a vibrant new schedule of shows, plays, music and exhibitions I think it is the Golden Age, if you will, of Guild Hall in the Hamptons."

Almost time for the curtain, the guests climbed aboard the courtesy shuttle bus or simply strolled to the theater, which was a short walk away. On the way into Guild Hall I bumped into Kevin Brown, the actor/comedian who plays Dot Com on Baldwin's enormously popular NBC series "30 Rock," which was created by and co-stars Tina Fey. Brown told me that he was more or less hijacked for this his first trip to the Hamptons by his publicist in support of Baldwin, "We literally just got off the highway, my publicist surprised me. She told me a couple of weeks ago, 'Hey we are going to the Hamptons in June.' I said, 'So what are we going for?' She didn't say. We were literally standing at the door getting our tickets and a young lady came up to me and said, 'Oh Dot Com, I love you on "30 Rock," are you here to support Alec?' That is when I found out why I was here; the young lady blew her secret."

Crown Media President and CEO Henry Schleiff believes Guild Hall is entering its Golden Age.

Commenting on Baldwin as a fellow performer Brown said, "He is a gracious actor. He is very gracious, very giving. When you get around actors that are big stars they don't have be gracious, they don't have be giving, they don't have to be anything they don't want to be. Alec isn't like that, I love working with him." I asked Brown now that he has seen the Hamptons if he were interested in acquiring a Hamptons address, "They told me some things were available, so I am going to take a look as I drive by."

All opening night related revelry aside, as Shakespeare said, "The play is the thing..."

And what a play it is indeed! Guild Hall and its patrons were honored by the presence of 'Equus' playwright Sir Peter Shaffer during both the rehearsal process, wherein he reworked several elements of the play, and at opening night where he was roundly applauded after his introduction to the SRO audience in the John Drew Theater.

Considered Shaffer's masterpiece, the play was awarded the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics' Circle and Tony Awards with its American premiere on Broadway in 1975 at the Plymouth Theater. The play synopsis as described at StageAgent.com is, "Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist, investigates the savage blinding of six horses at a stable in Hampshire, England. For no apparent reason, an unassuming 17-year-old stable boy named Alan Strang, the only son of a timid father and a refined, religious mother, committed the atrocity with a hoof pick. As Dysart exposes the truths behind the boy's demons, he finds himself confronting his own insecurities about religion, sexuality and his relationship with his wife."

The playwright's note on the play, included in the Guild Hall playbill, gives further insight into to the play and Sir Peter's motivation for writing it:

"One weekend about 40 years ago, I was driving with a friend through bleak countryside. We passed a stable. Suddenly he was reminded by it of an alarming crime which he had heard about recently at a dinner party in London. He knew only one horrible detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted five minutes - but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.

The act had been committed several years before by a highly disturbed young man. It had deeply shocked a local bench of magistrates. It lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.

"30 Rock's" Dot Com, actor Kevin Brown, poses for a picture with fan Nancy Weeks.

A few months later my friend died. I could not verify what he had said, or ask him to expand it. He had given me no name, no place, and no time. I don't think he knew them. All I possessed was his report of a dreadful event, and the feeling it engendered in me. I knew very strongly that I wanted to interpret it in some entirely personal way. I had to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible.

Every person and incident in "Equus" is of my own invention, save the crime itself: and even that I modified to accord with what I feel to be acceptable theatrical proportion. I am grateful now that I have never received confirmed details of the real story, since my concern has been more and more with a different kind of exploration.

I was lucky, in doing final work on the play, to have enjoyed the advice and expert comment of a distinguished child psychiatrist. Through him I tried to keep things real in a more naturalistic sense. I have also come to perceive that psychiatrists are an immensely varied breed, professing immensely varied methods and techniques. Martin Dysart is simply one doctor in one hospital. I must take responsibility for him, as I do for his patient."

The pre-performance Benefactors cocktail party at the Clfford/Levy home in East Hampton.

I cannot confirm which changes Shaffer made to the play for the Guild Hall production, but I can confirm that the East Hampton production is nothing short of brilliant. Directed by the legendary Tony Walton, the staging, acting, lighting and set design is superb. This is truly one of the most extraordinary productions ever staged in the East End.

All those years ago I saw both Anthony Perkins and Richard Burton in the role of Dysart on Broadway. Stage trained, film/television star Baldwin called upon his substantial gift for theatre, as he did in his Tony nominated performance in the 1992 Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," to deliver a performance that was both intense and nuanced when called for with what could be an homage to Burton's brilliant performance in "Equus," British accent included.

Watching Baldwin on stage made me think that this was an actor whose enormous personal artistic success may reside in the mediums of film and television, but whose true passion is for the feel of the boards beneath his feet. His performance was simply striking in a role that is particularly difficult, carrying the narrative of the play on his shoulders while presenting the real time illumination of the Dysart character with a subtle handling of the character's back story of professional self-doubt and a dispassionate marriage. In a nutshell, Baldwin is brilliant!

The Horses of course. (Guild Hall)

In an equally difficult role, Underwood portrays the troubled teenager Strang, patient and foil to Baldwin's Dysart. A young man conflicted with an upbringing of the emotionally dysfunctional parents of an atheist father and a religiously zealot mother, both sexually repressed themselves. The Strang character is sexually immature and emotionally conflicted, transferring both his religious and sexual confusion into a devotion to equine myth driven religion and sexual passion.

Underwood is undoubtedly a rising star with a profound gift for the stage and a definite future in film. If I were to make an analogy, I would describe him as a young, British Leonardo DiCaprio. It is easy to overplay psychological dysfunction on stage, to his credit Underwood did not. His performance was understated, yet rich in emotion. This was not a black and white performance of Strang, but one filled with diverse hues of gray. There are many non-verbal moments for the Strang character during the performance that are integral to the play, young Underwood delivers them with a subtlety that belies his age and experience. His spoken performance displays the same keen understanding of the role and illuminates his substantial gifts as a stage actor. His performance was extraordinary and it will be remembered as pivotal years from now when he has achieved the status of superstar, which I believe is inevitable one day.

Renowned columnist and political commentator Margaret Carlson.

The supporting cast was equally wonderful, including Kathleen McNenny, Jennifer Van Dyck, Shashi Balooja, Nehassaiu deGannes, Steve Hamilton, Terrence Michael McCrossan, Tuck Milligan, Chuck Novatka, Taylor Proffitt, JP Qualters, Georgia Warner and Mark Larson. McNenny as the magistrate and Van Dyck and Hamilton as Strang's parents particularly shined. This was an extremely well acted production from top to bottom.

Also in attendance at the performance was nationally renowned columnist and political commentator Margaret Carlson who was in the Hamptons as a guest of long time Guild Hall supporters Alan and Susan Patricof. During the intermission Carlson, commenting on Baldwin's performance, she made reference to his "30 Rock" character Jack Donahue, "If someone had told me earlier that Alec was going to do a Burton style Dysart with a British accent, I would have said, 'Oh no, Jack Donahue shouldn't try that.' But the minute I saw and heard him [Baldwin] on stage I forgot who he was."

After a standing ovation, those members of the audience at the Benefactor level exited to Guild Hall's garden patio for a meet and greet reception with the performers. I asked Guild Hall Artistic Director Josh Gladstone to comment on the powerful production, "I am very happy, very pleased. I have been here 10 years and every year is a build and a progression and you strengthen from one show to the next. We would not have gotten to this point if we had not been working hard to build the theater up over the past 10 years to this point. The renovation, last year's production of 'The Glass Menagerie' which generated a lot of excitement in the artistic community and brought Alec to us for this project. We are just going to keep growing."

During the reception I chatted with the charming, handsome and polite Underwood. I asked the actor if Strang was to date his most difficult role, "I just recently played Eugene Marchbanks in a production of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" which was also directed by Tony Walton. That was very challenging as well, but in a very different way. I would say that is the other most challenging role I have played. I would say that would be the closest in difficulty to this so far."

Patrons picking up their tickets for Guild Hall's opening night benefit performance of "Equus."

I asked Underwood if he was enjoying his first visit to the Hamptons, "I love it! In comparison to the intense work we are doing on this stage, to have the opportunity to go out in the sun, the fresh air, around the wildlife, it is the perfect Zen in comparison. It has really done some good for my soul." He went on to say, "People out here really care about the work. In the city there is amazing work being done, but it is a brutal factory. The people doing the work out here are doing it out of pure joy. Being at this extraordinary, historic theatre and working with these people is an absolute joy for me. It is the first experience like this I've had. Guild Hall really has the potential to be one of the strongest regional houses in the country."

After the Guild Hall reception, cast, crew and selected guests made their way to the beautiful Maidstone Inn for the cast party. Underwood's date for the night was his mother, the charming and lovely Angela Underwood. There is a failed seduction scene in "Equus" wherein both Underwood and Warner, who plays the character Jill Mason, are completely naked on stage. I asked Angela, having powdered her son's bottom as a baby, how she felt seeing her him nude on stage in front of a theatre full of strangers, "I must say when I first saw the play on Tuesday, which was a preview performance, I felt quite exhausted with emotion and I was extremely tearful after the play, I really was. Seeing him naked is not a problem because that is something quite natural between us, so that doesn't bother me at all. I am just a very, very proud mother."

"Equus" is a richly written, intense and profound work created by one of Britain's greatest living playwrights, as important and relevant today as it was when first produced almost four decades ago. It has been brilliantly and beautifully revived in a Guild Hall production that is simply a must see. The show only runs through July 3 so gallop, do not canter, to the Guild Hall box office as this production will undoubtedly sell out in the blink of a horse's eye.

For more information go to www.guildhall.org.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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Guest (Sandy) from Montauk says::
Sorry Kate, I meant to say the "horses arse"
Jun 18, 2010 8:25 am

Guest (Kate) from East Hampton says::
Now now Sandy....
Jun 16, 2010 1:00 pm

Guest (Sandy) from Montauk says::
So... Alec played the horse?
Jun 14, 2010 9:29 pm


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