New York City Theater
"The Elephant Man"
Pitiful sounds from a creature in pain.
So begins the underplayed and cool yet curiously moving and relevant revival of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,” the 1979 drama about John Merrick (1862-1890). Horribly deformed, he was, at first, nothing but a freak-show attraction. Frightening all who looked at his drooping flesh and enormous head, revolting all by the “very sickening stench” that “arose from the fungous skin growths,” Merrick was one of life’s unfortunate outcasts.
But, as personified by Bradley Cooper, he’s also a metaphor for what ails a gossip-hungry, superficial society. Of course, the role of Merrick has been interpreted on stage before – by Philip Anglim, David Bowie and Billy Crudup – no mean examples of handsome, androgynous male actors. But Cooper brings his own angst and ambivalence to the role. Here is a film star caught between commercial movie junk like “The Hangover” and serious film challenges like the forthcoming “American Sniper.”
As Merrick, Cooper distorts his body, screws up his mouth, walks with a limp and dredges, from somewhere deep inside, the torturous sounds of a wounded animal. Although others have done similar transformations in the same role, Cooper’s brutish physicality somehow makes Merrick’s illness even more poignant. By being less obviously fragile than his predecessors, he adds a layer of tragedy, of a man whose great potential is unrealized, connecting him to sufferers of early deaths from the likes of Ebola and AIDS.
Yet, although Cooper is excellent, the evening belongs to Alessandro Nivola, depicting a passionate and psychologically troubled Fredrick Treves, the doctor who saves Merrick from his desperate life as a freak. Taking him to London Hospital, Treves nurtures and encourages Merrick, finding him a path to release if not his physical being, then his emotions and intellect.
But what of Treves’s own doubts, his own sacrifice in discovering Merrick’s sensitive, romantic and worshipping essence? “As he’s achieved greater and greater normality, his condition’s edged him closer to the grave,” says the doctor about his patient. “To become more normal is to die?”
Treves’s conflicts -- sexual, philosophical, religious, societal -- his “disabling spiritual duality” -- were clearer in a dream scene, cut from this production, that questioned his own normality.
As Mrs. Kendal, the actress who encourages the sentient, sexual being she sees in Merrick, Patricia Clarkson downplays the woman’s artificiality. Anthony Heald is energetic as a bishop.
Director Scott Ellis is a stickler for atmosphere. Philip S. Rosenberg’s crepuscular lighting, Timothy R. Mackabee’s bare bones scenic and projection design, along with Clint Ramos’ worn-looking costumes, plunge us unto a world of illusion from which there is no escape.
Beneath the outer shell of the play, Pomerance asks more profound questions, among them: If God is just, why would he cause suffering? What do we project of ourselves when helping others? How do we define mercy? Normality?
Questions asked but unanswerable.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 16, 2014