The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper returns to Broadway in a highly anticipated performance.

Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, and Patricia Clarkson in the Broadway revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, directed by Scott Ellis, at The Booth Theatre.
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, and Patricia Clarkson in the Broadway revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, directed by Scott Ellis, at the Booth Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Bradley Cooper (who was last seen on Broadway opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain) claims that The Elephant Man is the reason he became an actor. Granted, he's talking about the completely unrelated, in no way derivative film by David Lynch, but still, Joseph Merrick is obviously a role he's waited a lifetime to play, and it shows at Broadway's Booth Theatre, where the latest revival of Bernard Pomerance's drama is now playing following a 2012 run at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Cooper delivers one of the most thrilling performances of the year with the help of a solid supporting cast and a design scheme that is both efficient and eye-catching.

While the Hollywood A-lister is undoubtedly a huge part of the draw, The Elephant Man comes with its own pedigree. After an initial run off-Broadway, it debuted on Broadway in 1979, winning the Tony Award for Best Play. (The previously mentioned film by the same title came out the year after, even though it claimed no relation to Pomerance's work.) The play was revived on Broadway in 2002 with Billy Crudup in the central role. This second Broadway revival comes at a time when the play's themes of justice and morality in the midst of unforgiving capitalism feel more relevant than ever.

It's based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (alternately referred to in the play as "John Merrick"), a severely disfigured man living in Victorian England. We get to know him through Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), a brilliant young surgeon at London Hospital who stumbles upon Merrick (Cooper) in a traveling sideshow, where he is billed as "half-elephant, half-man." Treves knows this to be impossible, but his curiosity is piqued and he makes treating Merrick as a patient his own personal crusade. He takes "The Elephant Man" from sideshow to the hospital.

Of course, the sideshow manager Ross (Anthony Heald) wants to be compensated for lost business. And the hospital can't house Merrick gratis forever. But when hospital chairman Carr Gomm (Henry Stram) publicizes Merrick's case in the newspaper, donations come pouring in from the English public. Famous actress Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) introduces Merrick to her society friends, turning him into an overnight sensation among the lords and ladies of London. They all seem to see the positive qualities of themselves reflected in the gentle and astute "Elephant Man." Treves quietly wonders if Merrick isn't just performing in a sideshow again, this time for a high-class audience.

Nivola endows Treves with a cocky swagger that gradually wanes over the course of the play, as Merrick gently destroys every truth and certainty he holds dear. Smacking his lips together before each line, Cooper nonchalantly asks, "Will the children go to the workhouse," referring to the children of Will, a porter Gomm fired for gawking at Merrick. Clearly uncomfortable, Treves insists that he will find other employment, that Gomm was merciful for thinking of Merrick's feelings above Will's paycheck. Cooper then asks in a manner calm yet pointed, "If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?" So much for liberal compassion.

All right, so maybe Pomerance is a little on the nose with his anti-establishment morality, but the exhilarating back-and-forth between the two actors makes the author's blunt prose a moot point: It never feels awkward, forced, or overly sanctimonious.

This also goes for Clarkson, who brings depth and ambiguity to a role that could easily become a two-dimensional and slightly misogynistic sketch of a Victorian woman. While the always-on and constantly genuflecting (as if to an audience) Mrs. Kendal provides much of the first act's comic relief, in the second Clarkson gives us a beguiling view of her fragility. As she stands, bare-chested in front of Merrick, we know we are witnessing one of the play's most genuinely kind moments.

Naturally, however, it is Cooper who steals the show. His commitment to the role never wavers. Every line and gesture feels perfectly natural, even though they are being conveyed by a man who has twisted his face and body into an unnatural shape. We never once question his deformity, the willing suspension of disbelief firmly established from the earliest moments as Cooper transforms into Merrick before our eyes using only his own body (no makeup or prosthetic).

Sticking to this less-is-more approach, director Scott Ellis runs an efficient and feather-light ship. He keeps the space between scenes virtually nonexistent, covering the quick scene changes on Timothy R. Mackabee's versatile set with lighting and sound effects by Philip S. Rosenberg and John Gromada. Clint Ramos' period costumes are stunningly realized (especially Clarkson's teal dress), lending the mise-en-scène desperately needed splashes of color in what otherwise would be a mostly black-and-white affair (much like the film non-adaptation).

The end result is a brisk evening of intelligent theater, undergirded by some of the best performances you're likely to see on a Broadway stage. This is a strictly limited run, so don't miss it.

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The Elephant Man

Closed: February 21, 2015