Bradley Cooper is shirtless and in boxer shorts when we first see him on stage as John Merrick in director Scott Ellis’s competent production of Bernard Pomerance’s play “The Elephant Man” that has opened tonight at the Booth Theater. There is Cooper, a movie star with impeccable pecs, People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011, portraying a historical figure who was so grotesquely deformed that he was at first exhibited as an “elephant man” in freak shows.
As in past productions, including the two on Broadway, the actor portraying Merrick applies no makeup or prosthetic devices to simulate Merrick’s actual appearance (this would be “distracting,” the playwright has said), but the audience is not forced just to imagine what he looked like. As Cooper stands there, Alessandro Nivola, the actor playing Frederick Treves, the doctor who rescued Merrick, is projecting the actual images of Merrick while graphically describing his horrendous condition. (See photograph below.)
The actor on stage must use his voice and body to convince us of his painful burden — a physically taxing role that seems to encourage, if not demand, an extraordinary performance. Now, the history of Hollywood (if not Broadway) is full of great beauties portraying ugly characters (model Charlize Theron won an Oscar as a serial killer in “Monster”) and of able-bodied actors recreating lives of the disabled (Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar as the incapacitated artist and writer Christy Brown
in “My Left Foot.”) Cooper, contorting his body and speaking haltingly out of the side of his mouth, offers a fine performance as Merrick, one likely to satisfy those who got their tickets specifically to see him in the flesh. But it did not strike me as an extraordinary performance, which comes as something of a surprise: Cooper has said that it was the 1980 film of “The Elephant Man,” directed by David Lynch, that “crystallized” his decision to become an actor, and that he performed the role of Merrick for his master’s thesis in acting at the New School, which included research at the London hospital where Merrick lived until his death at the age of 27 in 1890.
Coincidentally or not, the 1980 film is currently streaming on Netflix, which may prompt a question among some people about whether it is worth the price (from $80 to $169 per ticket) to see the Broadway production, when you can just stay home and watch the film that so inspired Bradley Cooper.
The regular theatergoer might well dismiss such calculation with contempt, always preferring the live experience. This revival certainly offers a polished production with a thoroughly professional 14-member cast, including several performers besides Cooper who have impressive reputations and steadfast admirers: Patricia Clarkson, Nivola , Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Inherit the Wind), who plays both Merrick’s drunken carnival “owner” and a bishop who befriends him; and Scott Lowell (Ted Schmidt in Queer as Folk) who is making his Broadway debut portraying four different characters.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
If anybody is actually deciding to skip the play because of the movie, there are to my mind two main reasons not to do so.
The first is that Pomerance layered into his drama humor, insights, and provocative observations that Lynch does not have in his film (which was not based on the play.) The playwright explores the ways Merrick was treated, even by the most well-meaning, as fraught with moral ambiguity. As a bonus he suggests a parallel in this treatment with how Great Britain at the time behaved towards its colonies. In a bizarre twist to his tale, Merrick became the toast of late 19th century British society, his hospital room becoming a salon of sorts. The play helps explain this by having the characters one by one – from Treves to the Princess of Wales – tell us how much he reminds them of themselves (although their personalities are wildly different.) Each of the characters is projecting his or her own personality onto that of Merrick, whose face is so malformed he is unable to show emotion.
Spinning off from the fact that the real Merrick (whose first name was Joseph) built a beautiful and elaborate model of St. Philip’s Church in cardboard using his one good hand, the playwright slowly establishes Merrick as a kind of artist, with an artist’s sensibilities, bluntly honest and unpopular perceptions, and a bitterly ironic appreciation for beauty. That leads to the best scene in the play, a touching, erotic encounter between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, an actress whom Treves originally recruits simply so that Merrick can meet a woman who is trained to be enough in control of her emotions so that she won’t cringe in his presence.
Mrs. Kendal is portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, and her performance is the other compelling reason to see the current Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man.” Hers is not the biggest role, but she is the kind of actress who can communicate transcendent feeling while presenting to us a life that seems simultaneously of elegance, amusement, and ineffable suffering. She does this through her carriage and her facial expressions and the smallest of gestures, or perhaps just through some actor alchemy that cannot be explained. It is the emotional transmission between actor and audience that one was hoping would be enacted as precisely and as thoroughly by Bradley Cooper.
The Elephant Man
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Scott Ellis
Scenic and Projection Design by Timothy R. Mackabee, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and Sound Design by Drew Levy.
Amanda Lea Mason
running time: two hours, including an intermission
Tickets: $80 to $169
The Elephant Man is scheduled to run through February 15, 2015