This revival of the 1979 Broadway hit relies on the grim retelling of an oft-told tale, that of Joseph Carey Merrick, who as a young man, developed such gross deformities he was displayed as a sideshow curiosity in England of the 1880s. He was rescued from this ghastly existence by Frederick Treves, a young doctor at the London Hospital who wished to study him. Merrick stayed at the hospital till his death. There was no medical fix. Treves endeavored to treat his condition by helping Merrick live as normally as possible.
Much of the story is true, much apocryphal. Details aside, Bernard Pomerance’s script demonstrates the capacity for human dignity in the face of the most appalling odds, and focuses on Merrick’s years of redemption and self awareness. At the same time, seen through Merrick’s eyes, it is a wonderful send up of British pretensions, masculine posturing, and the medical community’s grandiosity.
Skipping by the decision to cast a beautiful man as the monstrously defined elephant man, Bradley Cooper (Merrick) does his best to make us forget his beauty (and his sitcom and movie star props) and get to his character; we get there fast.
In a powerful early scene, Treves, center stage, addresses his medical colleagues at The London. Referring to actual, life-sized photographs of the real Merrick, he narrates, with a physician’s detachment, his appalling afflictions. Stage right, Cooper, dressed only in short pants, metamorphoses from the perfect man, all muscle and symmetry, to the freak show version of Merrick, curling his fingers, distending his back, pitching his now outsized heavy head back and to the side. It’s a remarkable exercise in itself. That Cooper maintains that distortion throughout the performance is stunning.
As you come to know Merrick–as he is dressed like you or me–as he makes us laugh with his insights, he gradually becomes less grotesque. Another artful transition owing to the actor’s talent and the director’s (Scott Ellis) restraint.
The second act is full of message: the physician’s plight–he sees damage in the world but cannot heal attitude. Merrrick is again the metaphor–the more he is normalized the closer he comes to death. Anthony Heald’s Bishop How is the pompous and ineffectual Church. Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) gives Merrick her humanity, and is banished.
Clarkson’s star turn alone is worth the trip to the Booth. She is Mrs. Kendal, a well known actress. Treves introduces her to Merrick hoping that, as an actress, she can mask her reaction to his deformities and give him the company of a beautiful woman. Mrs. Kendal is worldly and wonderful and Clarkson delivers both her bons mots, and her more tender entreaties, with that disarming gift–she is somehow able to make us feel that whatever she is saying…she’s just thought of it.
The brutality of the early scenes gives way to the calm of the hospital. We are captive, as is Merrick, in a small sanctuary space. Staging is spectacular in it’s simplicity. Nurses in 1880s garb march across the stage closing and opening curtains offering up surprising impact and variety.
It is a reality today that producers won’t open a show of size without a television and/or movie star to headline. In Cooper and Clarkson they have both and their film and television following fill the theater on this Saturday matinee. The line outside the stage door at the end of the performance, iPhones poised, some surprisingly expert elbowing for position, was telling.
That said, each of these actors very much belongs on a Broadway stage.
The Elephant Man – By Bernard Pomerance; directed by Scott Ellis
WITH: Bradley Cooper (Merrick), Patricia Clarkson (Mrs.Kendal), Alessandro Nivola (Frederick Treves), Anthony Heald (Ross, Bishop How), Scott Lowell (Snork, Pinhead Manager, Lord John, Orderly) Kathryn Meisle (Ms.Sandwich, Princess Alexandra, Nurse) Henry Stram (Carr Gomm, Conductor) Chris Bannow (Pinhead, Will, Orderly), Peter Bradbury (Voice, Belgian Policeman, Orderly), Lucas Calhoun (standby Merrick), Eric Clem (English Policeman, Orderly), Amanda Lea Mason (Pinhead, Countess, Nurse), Marguerite Stimpson (Duchess, Nurse), Emma Thorne (Nurse)
Designed by Timothy R. Mackabee; lighting by Philip Rosenberg; composer and sound by John Gromada; associate director Jordan Fein. Clint Ramos did the costumes, Charles G. LaPointe the hair and wigs. Presented by Aurora Productions, 101 Productions, Ltd., James L. Nederlander. At the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th St, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Through Feb 15. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.