It's not as though Alec Baldwin hasn't played heavy dramatic roles before. And on stage, too. His Stanley Kowalski on Broadway earned him a 1992 Tony nomination and won an Emmy three years later for the TV adaptation.
But now that we're so accustomed to his comic repertoire as "30 Rock's" Jack Donaghy and in myriad "Saturday Night Live" hosting stints, it takes some adjustment to keep from anticipating a joke every time Dr. Martin Dysart opens his mouth in a revised version of "Equus" at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater.
That would be a mistake. "Equus," revived to great fanfare on Broadway in 2008 with Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe as the stableboy who blinds six horses in a fit of sexual shame, is being performed for the first time with rewrites by author Peter Shaffer, who attended the opening night performance.
As directed by Tony Walton, Baldwin establishes a dark, mythic undertone from the outset and makes Dr. Dysart's misgivings about treating young Alan Strang almost palpable. He and Kathleen McNenny, the magistrate who brings Dysart the case, breathe life into what are essentially expository scenes with their unspoken sexual tension as the psychiatrist reveals the dead core of his personal life.
Stephen Hamilton as Alan's father - in a role seamlessly expanded by Shaffer - together with Jennifer Van Dyck as the boy's mother, dance awkwardly around their guilt and conflict, both religious and equestrian, which explain the teen's torment, if not his crime.
Georgia Warner, as the girl who inadvertently triggers Alan's mad act by seducing him, combines innocence with the daring of their nude romp.
But the play belongs, as ever, to Alan Strang and the inhabitants of his psyche, beginning with Peter Firth, who originated the role in 1973, through Radcliffe's star turn and now Sam Underwood's forlorn mien that evokes a horse with sad eyes. His Alan appears all but unreachable. It takes a miracle of shrink ingenuity to draw him out.
Deploying a new tack in the script, Dysart gives Alan a cassette player to facilitate his treatment. But the recorder also produces soliloquies that Underwood deftly uses to gain our sympathy, even as the beautiful horses - actors with elegant equine props - clomp around the grim carousel of Heather Wolensky's spare set, dimly lit by Sebastian Paczynski.
We care about Alan and worry, as Dysart does, that treatment will ruin his spirit. The spike with which he blinded the horses becomes a metaphor for lobotomy.