There is a strong crossover between your Daniel Radcliffe People and your Harry Potter People, for obvious reasons. Next to me at Broadway's Cort Theater on Thursday night, watching Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh's comedy The Cripple Of Inishmaan (a production that's Tony-nominated for Best Revival Of A Play) were three young women. Their first priority: finding out where to await him when the show was over, and strategically how to get a good spot. I don't remember when I realized they were one-time Harry Potter children who had found their way to the same Broadway play that a multiple Tony nominee was taking in a few rows ahead of them, but it seemed like ... a nice thing. A good thing. For them, but for him, too.
You have to be really, really good to grow out of having played Harry Potter eight times for zillions of people. And while Radcliffe has done other stuff in TV and film, his big change-ups have been in theater: Equus, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and now this.
And you watch him on stage, and you ... get it, I think. There is such unreality in films, particularly blockbusters, particularly blockbuster franchises, particularly blockbuster franchises full of special effects, particularly blockbuster franchises full of special effects that go on and on and on. The threat is that the actor — the human — becomes almost an effect himself, part and parcel of something so carefully crafted and fiddled with by such a large number of people that even if he's good, there's no blood and no breath left in it.
When you see movie actors — people you think of as movie actors, also known as "actors" — live, you get their blood and breath again. You get an equilibrium that comes from their taking the same form on stage that you do in the audience. And particularly in simply produced plays as opposed to glitzy musicals (though it can work in either, I think), you get a sort of humility of the body, where the limitations of how a person can move and speak are carved largely by the capabilities of the person.
The role Radcliffe plays here, Billy Claven — known to the the community that believes it cares for him as "Cripple Billy" because of the damage polio did to his body — is challenging physically, but he seems hesitant to make a meal of it in the tacky way one might dread. (There is a bit of a joke on the audience, in fact, as far as the attractions and perils of melodramatic acting, though if you haven't seen it, saying more than that would be unfair.)
The plot, which is very Shakespearean in its tendency toward double-twists based on what seems to be the truth and is not, concerns the excitement that follows when word comes to the little Irish island of Inishmaan that a Hollywood film is to be made nearby, and perhaps the locals will have a shot at stardom. Billy's aunties are terribly concerned, a local brother/sister duo that torments him and each other is eager, and the town gossip just wants to make sure that he knows everything about everything before anybody else.
McDonagh's dialogue is so musical and fond of looping back over itself that it often feels like a cousin of Aaron Sorkin's walk-and-talks, full of playful patter and favorite words that rattle around and collide in an unpredictable rhythm like pocket change accidentally tossed in a dryer. But Billy's finest and most striking moment — and Radcliffe's, too — comes in a late scene when he's explaining a complicated decision he made early on, simply talking to another person about his choices and his life. The light hand of the comedy ends up underlining the unavoidable sadness of a story that is, after all, about people living a very difficult kind of life, with Billy's perhaps toughest of all.
It's not that theater is only worth seeing if it has movie actors in it; that would be a horrible thing to say that I would never say, and not only because I do not want to have my apartment picketed by angry theater people who, quite frankly, would be justified. It's more that seeing a movie actor do theater brings into sharp relief the reasons why theater is a genuinely unique experience by showing the same person — someone who, in this case, I already like — in such a very different context with such a different effect. It's not that you should see plays when you can because they might have famous people in them; it's that if you never see plays, it's easy to forget how different they are from absolutely everything else, no matter who is in them.
But I will say — if you have access to New York, this production in particular is an excellent use of your evening.