The Elephant Man
You won’t hear the phrase ”I am not an animal!” uttered at any time during the sturdy but muted Broadway revival of The Elephant Man. (That now-famous bit is exclusively a product of David Lynch’s transporting 1980 black-and-white film.) But the sentiment is still very much there, as Joseph ”John” Merrick (gorgeously played by Bradley Cooper)—the cruelly disfigured man who claims his misshaped head ”is so big because it is so full of dreams”—continually finds himself at the service of the medical profession, curious onlookers, and even those looking to score a quick buck off of him.
This is the first time a former Sexiest Man Alive has tackled the physically demanding role, but Merrick has a long history of being played by famous actors at the height of their careers (David Bowie, Billy Crudup and Star Wars vet Mark Hamill are among them). The always-on-display nature of the role seems to act as an allegory for the harsh judgment of those thrust into the spotlight, and given the rise of social media bile in our regions, the point is timely and extremely well-taken.
Scott Ellis’ lean revival of Elephant is light on frills, very much in line with the long-standing decision to have the actor playing Merrick take on no prosthetics or makeup to convey Merrick’s contorted, compromised body. This production’s preference is to highlight the short-burst scenes that make up playwright Bernard Pomerance’s two acts chronicling Merrick’s social transformation as led by Dr. Frederick Treves, a surgeon who assumes care of the abused former circus curiosity. Theatrical grande dame Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) also becomes a confidante to Merrick, and awakens his romantic desires, which are unlikely to ever be reciprocated.
Since Pomerance’s play is often so curt with its dramatic scenes, it’s imperative that the three principal actors unearth all of the pathos necessary in a given time. Clarkson has fun with Mrs. Kendal’s slightly self-aware hauteur but it takes a bit too long to warm to her in the way we truly need to (we should find her as instantly irresistible as Merrick does), and Nivola—as dashing and matinee-idol ready as star Cooper—struggles with making the symbiotic bond between Treves and Merrick deeply felt, despite admirable effort.
Consequently then, Cooper—employing a lilting, singsongy gentleman’s English to suggest the gentle Merrick—owns this production. He may be one of biggest movie stars on the planet right now but he’s also a magnetic, surprisingly earthy stage actor—a fact known to anyone who might have seen him opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain in 2006 or his past Williamstown Theatre Festival jaunts. Mrs. Kendal describes Merrick in one interval as ”honest within limits, a serious artist in his way”, but she could just as easily be talking about the man playing him. B