What do you call new productions of old plays that downgrade the work’s status? Rather than burnishing the reputation of the piece, sometimes a remount switches on a cold, unforgiving light – under which clinical glare, warts and scars show more hideously. Not unlike last year’s underwhelming, short-lived run of Orphans, the latest Elephant Man raises doubts about the material’s original success. It may be a case of a juicy lead role in a flawed drama, one that is inferior to its film adaptation.
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 text that shifts modes or aims at multiple targets, Bernard Pomerance’s one hit (first seen on Broadway in 1979) doesn’t cohere satisfyingly. Despite Scott Ellis’ 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.
In interviews, Cooper has spoken warmly of his longtime dream of playing Merrick (the 1980 movie version is what 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 (Alessandro Nivola), who rescues Merrick after he’s been abandoned by the abusive circus impresario Ross (Anthony Heald).
Cooper may get to dominate the spotlight 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. (The good doctor’s conscience rather awkwardly unravels toward the end). 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.
Overall, it’s a sturdy production, from Timothy R. Mackabee’s set of moving curtains to Clint Ramos’ period frocks (that iconic full-body cloak for Merrick still terrifies). Philip D. Rosenberg’s light design prominently features a dozen or so inverted-bell-shaped lamps that hover over the actors, connoting an old-fashioned operating theater. And in addition to the lead actors, the ensemble is capable and brisk. However, strong acting cannot soften Pomerance’s wooden dialogue or smooth the tale’s bumpy transitions. Without doubt Cooper triumphs in this portrait of dignity in the face of unimaginable physical hardship, but the script of his Broadway vehicle could use the attention of a doctor as well.