'The Elephant Man': Theater Review

The Elephant Man Production Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown

The Elephant Man Production Still - H 2014

A passion project performed with a commensurate depth of feeling

Bradley Cooper plays the physically deformed outcast embraced by Victorian London society in Bernard Pomerance's bio-drama, which co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola

Bradley Cooper, by his own account, traces his earliest desire to be an actor to seeing the David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, at age 12. His investment in the tragic real-life character of Joseph Merrick, known as John, intensified when he performed the physically demanding role in Bernard Pomerance's play for his Actors Studio master's thesis, and again further when he appeared in a full production at the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival. That staging now comes to Broadway, bearing ample evidence of Cooper's personal connection to the material, which goes far beyond technical craft to a place of wrenching empathy.

Pomerance's 1977 bio-drama calls for the central role to be performed without special makeup or prosthetics. It seems almost absurd witnessing hunky Cooper so subsumed by a character renowned for his grotesque deformities that we forget whom we're watching. But in Scott Ellis' production, directed with as much compassion as precision, the illusion becomes complete. In fact, Cooper's tremendously moving performance, along with the sensitive work of co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola, transforms this rather starchy play from patronizing edification into a haunting emotional experience.

While Lynch's 1980 film starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt was adapted from other source material, the play covers more or less the same period. It concentrates on the few years leading to Merrick's death in 1890 at age 27, when he lived at London Hospital under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves (Nivola). Merrick's hellish early life is sketched with economy via quick scenes with Ross (Anthony Heald), the sideshow barker who acquired him from the Leicester workhouse where his mother had placed him as a child.

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"His physical agony is exceeded only by his mental anguish, a despised creature without consolation," announces Ross, luring spectators to gape. "See Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage! Tuppence." The florid sales pitch tells us more than we see initially, and while the glimpses of inhumane exploitation are harrowing, it's the theatrical transformation of Cooper into Merrick that rivets the attention and tugs at the heart.

As Treves talks medical students through Merrick's bone disorder and resulting skin growths, life-size photographs of the real subject are projected onto a central screen. Cooper stands alongside, clad only in period undershorts, his shape and posture altering as each malformation is described. His mouth crumbles into a lopsided version of Munch's "Scream"; his shoulder droops, leaving one arm abnormally extended; his hand twists into a gnarled stump; his hip collapses, forcing him to use a cane.

That distressing depiction of physical torment — which Cooper sustains throughout the play — is matched by Merrick's determination to speak with painstaking correctness, despite an obstructed windpipe that makes even breathing difficult.

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When attention to a newspaper editorial by the hospital administrator (Henry Stram) draws sufficient donations to make Merrick a permanent resident, Treves endeavors to give him a normal life. As John's questioning mind, his graciousness and his subtle wit come to light, he receives a stream of visitors bearing gifts, from clergy to royalty, all of them recognizing something of themselves in the gentle monster. His most profound friendship is with Mrs. Kendal (Clarkson), an actress well versed in the uses of artifice who responds to John with an absolute genuineness that seems to take even her by surprise.

Ellis punctuates the play with interludes of procession-like formality on designer Timothy R. Mackabee's austere set. He embeds the stiff repression of the age into the measured entrances and exits, and uses curtains as a visual motif to underscore the themes of display and concealment. Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting meticulously defines moments of exposure or isolation; sound designer John Gromada's music adds melancholy texture; and Clint Ramos' costumes are highly effective, from the cruel hood and massive cloak that hide Merrick in the beginning to his tailored finery later on. Mrs. Kendal's beautiful gowns are a spectacle in themselves.

However, while the elegant production has been mounted with care and delicacy, Pomerance's text doesn't exactly tread lightly with either symbolism or speech. The play becomes increasingly heavy-handed as it outlines Merrick's bid to rebuild himself as "an imitation of grace" in a society rife with deformities of the soul. But just as Cooper's Merrick dignifies his hideous appearance with his purity of spirit, the fine performances elevate the material beyond preachy melodrama.

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Clarkson is such a superb actress that it's endearing to discover something beyond her considerable reach — she can't do an English accent to save her life. But her tender performance is an exquisite rendering of artful layers, at its most poignant in a scene in which she shows that her humanity trumps her coded sense of propriety. There's a lovely, understated erotic tension in her interactions with both Merrick and Treves.

Nivola's character is almost Mrs. Kendal's opposite. While Freddie regards himself as someone free from the hypocrisies of the era, as a man of science, his affection for John retains a clinical distance. But his observation of the wretched man's unguarded honesty and unfailing gratitude causes painful cracks in his composure. The truth John represents makes Treves come to realize how constricted he is by false values. There's even a suggestion of envy in him, along with loss, as Merrick's condition worsens. While Nivola gets stuck with Pomerance's most didactic dialogue and an inadequately foreshadowed crisis, he locates the pathos in the man, which echoes that of Merrick.

There's strong work also from Stram as the head of the hospital, a brisk pragmatist not without decency; and from Heald (absent from Broadway for almost 20 years), wonderful as the morally repugnant Ross, and doubling as a Bishop who sees in Merrick "a true Christian in the rough."

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Acting is not a profession known for self-effacement, so it's refreshing that Cooper declines to take a solo bow. His performance is staggering in its physical discipline, its piercing emotional transparency and, most surprisingly, its restraint. Given that this production would never have happened without the star's commitment, watching him link arms and bow with the ensemble suggests a humility that somehow gives this old-fashioned but affecting play added resonance.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Alessandro Nivola, Anthony Heald, Scott Lowell, Kathryn Meisle, Henry Stram, Chris Bannow, Peter Bradbury, Eric Clem, Amanda Lea Mason, Margeurite Stimpson, Emma Thorne

Director: Scott Ellis

Playwright: Bernard Pomerance

Set and projection designer: Timothy R. Mackabee

Costume designer: Clint Ramos

Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg

Music and sound designer: John Gromada

Presented by James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Catherine Adler, Roger Berlind, Caiola Productions, Patrick Catullo, Roy Furman, Larry Hirschhorn, Jeffrey Finn Productions, Van Kaplan, Edward M. Kaufmann, Hal Luftig, Arielle Tepper Madover, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, The Shubert Organization, Douglas Smith, Jonathan M. Tisch, MSG WLE, Scott & Brian Zeilinger