Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
With Billy Crudup as the malformed title character John Merrick in The Elephant Man, the drama might just as well have been called The Elegant Man. Bernard Pomerance certainly had elegance of human thought and expression on his mind when he wrote his 1979 Tony award winner; his three focal figures each stand for some manner of commanding refinement. Frederick Treves, the physician who attempts to give his increasingly celebrated patient the semblance of a good life, is distinguished and caring, as is Mrs. Kendal, the actress whom Treves enlists to hone Merrick's social graces.

Director Sean Mathias understands the playwright's intentions fully; he has seen to it that the current revival has a soigné, if deliberately tarnished, look. That includes Santo Loquasto's prominent, eminent sets and costumes. Because Merrick's seamy world, prior to Dr. Treves's intervention, was a two-penny (well, tuppence) carnival, and because carnivals are a handy metaphor for life, Loquasto has placed large metal marquee letters downstage that spell out the play's title. Once they are hoisted, Loquasto sends out four funhouse mirrors meant to remind us that, at times, everyone appears as physically and mentally distorted as Merrick. Loquasto has also positioned a defining rectangle of neon light above the action to drive home the all-the-world's-a-stage theme. The costumes in black, white, and various sumptuous grays are equally evocative.

One other Loquasto creation is the light-catching, lucite-like cathedral that Merrick designs and builds. The Gothic cathedral, often considered among the most elegant structures ever erected, is here a symbol of the perfection or, at least, the vaulting and buttressed aspiration that Merrick represents. As Pomerance writes him, the afflicted Merrick, shown in London between the years 1884 and 1890, is wittily perceptive and educated--whether formally or not is never quite explained. "If your mercy is so cruel," he comments about his past treatment in a boys' home, "what do you have for justice?" He gets laughs by itemizing the holes in the plot of Romeo and Juliet. "Does he take her pulse?" he demands to know of the moment when Romeo finds his lover drugged and apparently dead. "Does he get a doctor?" At one point, Merrick also says to Mrs. Kendal, "Sometimes, I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams."

Remarks like these make Merrick, for whom Treves wants a "normal" existence, enormously appealing. And Pomerance makes sure that appeal holds. In his introductory note to the play, he writes: "Any attempt to reproduce [Merrick's] appearance and his speech naturalistically if it were possible would seem to me not only counterproductive but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play." Instead Pomerance requires actors to suggest Merrick's disfigurement, as Crudup does, by striking and holding awkward poses and bending their faces as much as possible. (Pomerance includes a warning in the published version: "No one with any history of back trouble should attempt the part of MERRICK as contorted. Anyone playing the part of MERRICK should be advised to consult a physician about the problem of sustaining any unnatural or twisted position.")

Merrick's attractiveness, greatly enhanced by Crudup's chiseled physique, lends The Elephant Man much of its overarching attractiveness. In 21 brief scenes that follow Merrick's progress from sideshow come-on to cooperative patient to amusing conversationist to dying icon, Pomerance makes a case for the dignity of mankind and how it often gets bent out of shape (think of those rolling mirrors). Aside from his physical deformities, Merrick is well-nigh perfect; he makes good and instructive company. The Elephant Man is Pomerance's emblematic moral lesson in what constitutes spiritual beauty: The title character is a cathedral to the needy masses. For that reason, his place at the center of the narrative guarantees its impact...and it surely helps Mathias's version remain highly effective.

Curiously, however, there is a distortion to this play about distortion. The Elephant Man is central in every way but the crucial one. John Merrick isn't the play's true center; it's Frederick Treves whose dramatic journey this is. As in Peter Shaffer's Equus and Amadeus, the audience is intended to wonder about the fellow observing the attention-grabbing, larger-than-life personality. Treves is standing in for us. Who is he? Why is he so disturbed by what he sees? What is he learning?

Billy Crudup, Rupert Graves, and Kate Burtonin The Elephant Man
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup, Rupert Graves, and Kate Burton
in The Elephant Man
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In one of the play's most touching scenes, Merrick, declaring that he has never seen a woman undressed, is obliged by Mrs. Kendal. Surprised and astonished, Merrick says, "It is the most beautiful sight I have seen. Ever." They are interrupted by Treves, who reacts with Victorian outrage and chastises Mrs. Kendal: "Are you not ashamed? Do you know what you are? Don't you know what is forbidden?" The speech is unexpected, since Treves had to that moment been put forth as an A. J. Cronin-like healer. The impetus behind Treves's anger, other than its grounding in attitudes of the period, is never truly examined. True, there is a sequence in which Treves dreams himself as the specimen and Merrick as the case historian; but though it covers Treves's unconscious misgivings about himself, it doesn't address the facts and fancies of his life outside the practice of medicine. In stinting on Treves, Pomerance has made an honest mistake in that the Merricks of the world easily skew focus. But it's a mistake all the same; not enough of a flaw to sink the play but enough to keep it from being more than classily above average.

The trappings Mathias brings to The Elephant Man are way above average. Although there is a certain elephantiasis of direction early on--Mathias encourages the minor players to overdo their activities as average Londoners or carnival inmates--the play's best scenes are models of fluidity and humanity. Crudup, moving with difficulty and speaking in slow and slurred words, is usually present, and he shows his worth as a leading man. There is a reticence in his performing, an inclination to underplay, that serves him well here whereas it didn't when he turned Shakespeare's Angelo into a footman in last summer's Measure for Measure. The quiet moments at the end of the play, when he finally relaxes, are especially powerful.

Rupert Graves, so effective a few years ago in Patrick Marber's ultra-contemporary Closer, brings poise and worry to Treves. In his cutaway coats, he is every inch the English gentleman; he makes visible efforts to lay out Treves's conflicts with whatever clues the script offers him. Graves is one of those film and stage actors who aren't rated as highly as they ought to be, and here is another performance that deserves notice. Kate Burton, making her second Broadway appearance this season, is smilingly knowing as Mrs. Kendal. She also plays a couple of other roles--a carny pinhead and a figment in Treves's dream--and has the right kind of sleek fun with all assignments. Jack Gilpin, Edmond Genest, and Jenna Stern, as various locals and lowlifes, help keep the proceedings poignant and polished. All of them also benefit from James F. Ingalls's often carnival-like lighting and David Shapiro's sound design, which incorporates some plangent, new Philip Glass mood music.