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Broadway measures the mood and pulls out dark revivals

Fall theater opens with classics such as Chekhov's 'The Seagull' and Miller's 'All My Sons,' plus a little light relief in 'Billy Elliot' and 'Shrek.'

By Christopher WallenbergContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2008

London calling: Daniel Radcliffe plays the lead in 'Equus' (top left), a huge hit in the West End last year.

Carol Rosegg/ap

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As the financial markets melt down and anger at Wall Street excesses rise, Broadway stages seem to mirror the mood. This fall, a collection of prescient and searing dramas examines the sins of men (and women) behaving badly and takes a closer look at their self-serving, scheming, damaged souls.

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'The Seagull'

Self-absorbed egotists are at the heart of the breathlessly acclaimed production of Chekhov's "The Seagull," a drama about the disappointments and adversities of disaffected Russian theater artists in the late 19th century. The cast is led by Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, the narcissistic yet caustically funny actress grappling with deep-seated fears about her aging beauty and fading sexual magnetism. Scott Thomas herself knows something about her character's predicament, having been forsaken by Hollywood in recent years after her career as a leading lady peaked with films like "The English Patient" and "The Horse Whisperer." (She has instead focused on the stage and a flourishing career in European cinema.) One London reviewer said that the production was worth seeing for Scott Thomas's performance alone. Joining her onstage for the stateside production is the indie film favorite, Peter Sarsgaard, who favors character parts in smaller dramas like "Boys Don't Cry," "Kinsey," and "Shattered Glass." Sarsgaard plays Arkadina's lover, Trigorin, whose callous ways drive one character to suicide and another to lovesick despondency. He's a famous middlebrow writer chained to a life he loathes yet desperately needs. The London production has been praised for perfectly balancing the paradoxes suffused throughout Chekhov's writing.

'Equus'

Another London import that's washed ashore on this side of the pond is a revival of Peter Shaffer's "Equus," starring Daniel Radcliffe, best known for playing the bespectacled boy-wizard, Harry Potter. As he's pushed past his adolescence, the actor has been eager to establish his acting bona fides. What better way to do that than to strip down to your birthday suit for a provocative turn in a heart-wrenching work about a stable boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike? A humongous hit in London in 2007, the play is a touchstone of the 1970s-era preoccupation with the talking cure. It revolves around the deeply disturbed Alan Strang, whose mental state is fast unraveling due to religious and sexual guilt. To cope, Alan escapes into a horse-worshiping fantasy world – at night, sneaking into the stables, stripping naked, and lying astride a black stallion. As his obsession grows, the play races toward its terrible climax, grappling with questions about belief in God and madness versus genius. Richard Griffiths, who scored a Tony award in 2006 for his performance in "The History Boys," plays the despondent psychiatrist who's unsure if "curing" Alan is the moral thing to do. This was Radcliffe's chance to prove himself an actor of emotional depth and range, and according to most London critics, he knocked it out of the park.

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