The Elephant Man
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The Elephant Man: In brief
Bradley Cooper, so excellent in 2006's Three Days of Rain, returns to Broadway in Bernard Pomerance's period piece about the severely deformed Joseph Merrick. Rescued from a freak show by Dr. Treves (Alessandro Nivola), Merrick struggles to maintain his independence and dignity. Patricia Clarkson costars in a production directed by Scott Ellis.
The Elephant Man: Theater review by David Cote
A play about a fellow whose body consists of disproportionate, ill-fitting parts, The Elephant Man is itself a mishmash: part medical mystery, part Victorian weepie, part Pygmalion fable about an individual remade in society’s image. And while there’s nothing wrong with a drama that shifts modes or aims at multiple targets, Bernard Pomerance’s one hit (first on Broadway in 1979) doesn’t really cohere satisfyingly. Despite Scott Ellis’s lucid staging and a cast led by Bradley Cooper doing yeoman’s work as the grotesquely deformed Joseph Merrick, it groans and creaks as it moves. Not unlike last year’s short-lived run of Orphans, this is one of those revivals that raises doubts about the material’s original success. Here it may be a case of a juicy lead role in a flawed piece.
In interviews, Cooper has spoken warmly of his longtime dream of playing Merrick (the 1980 movie version drew him to acting), and he certainly rises to the physical and vocal challenges. Employing the tradition of using neither prosthetics nor makeup, Cooper adopts Merrick’s painfully askew physique, right arm a swollen club, left one strikingly delicate. His breathing is labored and full of gurgles and gasps, yet when Merrick speaks, it is a thoughtful, refined tenor. This collision of monstrousness and grace—of the animal and human—attracts the professional attention of Dr. Frederick Treves (Nivola), who rescues Merrick after he’s been abandoned by the abusive circus impresario Ross (Anthony Heald).
Cooper may be fiercely talented as Merrick, but he’s no stage hog, surrounding himself with lesser players. Treves is cocky but self-conscious, a man of science still struggling with the prudery of his times, and Nivola works hard to unite the disparate parts of his sketchy role (Pomerance unpacks the good doctor’s conscience rather awkwardly toward the end of the piece). Patricia Clarkson lends her ethereal wit and elfin beauty to a stage diva who falls in platonic love with Merrick and helps Treves introduce the thoughtful young man to London society, where he becomes a celebrity. Pomerance’s most interesting point is that Merrick has simply traded one freak show for another.
However, strong acting cannot soften wooden dialogue or smooth bumpy transitions. Cooper triumphs in this portrait of dignity in the face of unimaginable physical hardship, but his Broadway vehicle could use a doctor’s care, as well.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Cooper’s bravura acting nearly saves this clunky chestnut.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote