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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Pomerance's clever and absorbing drama was based on the true story of a devastatingly deformed young man named Joseph Merrick, AKA as The Elephant Man because of his elephant-like skin texture and elephantine sized head. Audiences loved this Victorian story of a man at the nadir of an already miserable existence being rescued by a man at the opposite end of the spectrum. That man, also drawn from real life, was an extremely successful physician named Frederick Treves.
The play drew audiences to the Booth Theater for two years, because Pomerance managed to justify the theater goer's inherent fascination with Nature's disastrous mistakes like Merrick by allowing them to reflect on his story as a mirror image of their own and society's shortcomings.
While Pomerance penned other plays, The Elephant Man was his one major success. It has probably retained its name recognition largely through the 1980 David Lynch film even though that used a different script. But despite the polished, metaphoric dramaturgy The Elephant Man thirty -plus years later falls short of fitting the term "classic." I feel, as I did after seeing the 2002 Broadway revival that "great" is a too elephantine adjective to describe it. Nevertheless, like Hamlet and King Lear, the main reason The Elephant Man has still shows up on stage — and now once again at Broadway's Booth Theater —, is the meaty title role. The challenge of playing a severely deformed character true to the playwright's instructions to do so without special make-up or prosthesis has made it a must-star-in-this goal for actors ever since David Schofield pioneered the role in London and Philip Anglim in New York. Bradley Cooper apparently was first intrigued by this role in graduate school and was a steady booster for the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival production's transfer to Broadway
. Given the ticket selling magic of popular film and TV stars, Cooper is an ideal choice. What could be more intriguing than to see the man once proclaimed by People Magazine as the sexiest man alive play a man whose repulsive appearance makes people unable to see the beauty inside the beast they perceive.
To cut right to the chase. Cooper is indeed a memorable Merrick, certainly the best I've seen.
This is hardly the first time a good looking actor has taken on this role. But Cooper also brings genuine movie star credentials (Hangover trilogy, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) along with good looks. While his appearance remains basically unchanged, he creates the illusion of Merrick's deformity with his body movements, voice and actions.
The effectiveness of Cooper's performance is stunningly realized in his first appearance, a scene where Treves is giving a lecture illustrated with projected photos of the real Merrick (the projections are actually of Treves' photos taken in 1886). As Treves is center stage and clicking through projected photos of different photographs of Merrick, Cooper's Merrick stands at the other side wearing only shorts and seemingly unaffected. But as the images change and the specifics of the disfigurement are described, Cooper's stance changes. In just a few minutes our focus shifts from the grotesque photos to the actor assuming Merrick's afflictions by contorting his body, twisting his mouth — in short, becoming the hungry for life human being imprisoned in the monstrous exterior projected on the upstage screen.
Cooper continues to prove himself the real deal throughout Scott Ellis's fast-paced production. He brings wonderful touches of humor and yes, even charm, to the scenes that show the effects of Dr. Treves's determined efforts to give him a chance to enjoy as normal a life as possible. The nuanced portrait of a man's bittersweet triumph over unimaginable adversity makes The Elephant Man an ever entertaining, heartbreaker despite the playwright's rather preachy social theme.
Of course this is actually as much, if not more, the story of those most affected by their interaction with Merrick—, primarily Dr. Treves and Mrs. Kendal the actress he enlists to round out his integration into normalcy. This production happily isn't just a coup for Cooper, but for Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson. Both are terrifically engaging.
The supporting cast is also well chosen. With the exception of the as always excellent Henry Stram as Treve's boss at the hospital that becomes home to the homeless Merrick, all expertly tackle several roles.
Anthony Heald and Kathryn Meisle are especially good. Heald plays Merrick's Dickensian freak show boss and also the Bishop (amusingly named How) who exploits Merrick's sensitivity as a means for making religion the basis for the normal life Treve wants for him. Meisle first appears as a nurse who depite having worked in an African Leper colony bolts at the first sight of Merrick, then becomes one of the royals who visit him once he becomes a celebrity (and something of a cash cow for the hospital).
The design elements are as sturdy as the performances. Timothy R. Mackabee's raked wooden platform set with its minimal props and smart use of pullback curtains, Philip S. Rosenbergs lighting, John Gramada's moody soundscape and Clint Ramos's handsome costumes underscore and enhance both the early freak show scenes and the London hospital setting.
If some of the evolving Merrick's observations sound a bit too advanced for a man still new to education beyond his workhouse childhood (e.g.: "If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?") that too is attributable to Pomerance's script which Director Ellis has smartly tightened as much as possible. If his trimming which includes a nightmare scene in which Treve becomes his own anatomical subject, makes the doctor's ultimate breakdown feel a bit rushed and muddled, so be it. It all works in the interest of making a dated and somewhat cliched play, work its magic as an absorbing entertainment.