Saul Jaffe in Merrick, The Elephant Man
(© Ben King)
Saul Jaffe in Merrick, The Elephant Man
(© Ben King)
"It's not the show itself but the tale you tell" says Saul Jaffe while performing the solo show Merrick, The Elephant Man, currently at 59E59 as part of Brits Off Broadway. But with a tale as oft-told and well-known as John Merrick's life story -- which has already been dramatized in Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man and the same-named film by David Lynch, it's hardly just the tale and more the way it is told. And despite the novelty of a one-man presentation and an often impressive performance from Jaffe, the telling here too often feels stale.

For most of its 70 minutes, the one-act alternates between the narration of carnival barker Tom Norman, the circus proprietor who turned Merrick into a freak sideshow attraction, and the narration of Dr. Frederick Treve, who treated Merrick. Indeed, the show is at its most engaging early on as Jaffe in direct address mode, playfully hams it up with the audience. He seems such the charming, quick-witted Master of Ceremonies that it's almost a shock when he's revealed to be Norman, who has long been depicted as one of the villains in Merrick's life.

While the prospect of getting Norman's version of the story seems a very promising twist, he is unfortunately used as more of a theatrical device than as a flesh and blood character before being eventually abandoned as the play's focal point. Still, one of the show's most memorable scenes has Jaffe, as Norman, passing a watermelon around the audience to illustrate the extra weight on Merrick's misshapen head.

In addition to portraying Treve, Jaffe -- who co-wrote the show with Mary Swan (also the production's director) -- turns himself into Merrick. Typically, he gives himself the task of portraying Merrick's deformities -- head back, shoulder hunched, knees turned in -- and then in a deliberate instant depicting Merrick without them, a choice that seems designed to show us the not always kind soul of the man inside the famously distorted body. The effect of the instantaneous changes is dramatically striking, and Jaffe acts them seamlessly. But watching Merrick without his physical deformities is not just a letdown; it invites unflattering comparisons with Pomerance's far superior play.