Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Elephant Man

photo: Joan Marcus
Unique questions arise when presenting differently-bodied characters in theatrical productions. Should one be painstakingly literal--either out of respect, or to offer the audience a chance to fully wrestle with its collective prejudices and preconceived notions--or should the artists let the mind's eye do at least some of the work? Recently, Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale (presented by Playwrights Horizons in 2012) and Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment (first produced in 1995, and revived to acclaim last fall; both by Primary Stages) used extraordinarily convincing body suits to present morbidly obese characters, played by Shuler Hensley and Diane Davis, respectively. The effect was primal and immediate: there was no hiding from plain fact of two people succumbing to their size. Oppositely, the recent Broadway premiere production of Violet, in which the title character has a disfiguring facial scar, used no make-up at all. The physical deformity was evoked solely through the actions of the actor (Sutton Foster) playing the role, and the reactions of those around her. Cases can be made for both the strongly literal and the evocatively figurative characterizations.

Bernard Pomerance's ever-popular The Elephant Man has always stringently shied away from using anything other than vocal or physical mannerisms in portraying John (real name: Joseph) Merrick, a real-life Victorian man whose horrible deformities gained him notoriety and a certain amount of celebrity in his own time. In fact, most productions have taken pains to cast conventionally attractive men in the role. The original production starred Philip Anglim, who had worked as a model prior to becoming an actor; Mark Hamill (at the height of his Star Wars fame) and David Bowie acted as replacements. A 2002 Broadway revival featured the dashing Billy Crudup. The current revival, in previews at the Booth Theatre after a successful Williamstown Theatre Festival engagement two summers ago, outdoes them all, with box office megastar and former People Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper assuming the title role. And while this handsome but lifeless production does not make a case for the play as an enduring stage classic, Cooper's anchoring central performance is imbued with both skill and passion.

Long before the earned Oscar nominations for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and became a comedy star via the Hangover franchise, I first encountered Bradley Cooper as a stage actor. In 2006, when he was best known as Rachel McAdams' douchebag fiancé in Wedding Crashers, he handily walked away with the Broadway production of Three Days of Rain, eclipsing his more famous (at the time) co-stars, Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd. Cooper holds an MFA from The New School, where his senior thesis was a performance of The Elephant Man. In interviews, he's spoken of the profound impact the play has on him, and it seems that he's been waiting his entire career to be able to take on the part in a major production. The rise in Cooper's star power since his last Broadway outing can be plainly seen: his labor of love is drawing over-capacity crowds to the Booth Theatre, with most ticket-buyers paying a top price of $169 to see him.

Even with Cooper's strong central performance, The Elephant Man fails to move me. It's one of those plays that manages to feel both fleetingly brief (this production, with an intermission, clocks in at under two hours) and unbearably long. Far too much of the story is related in dramatically inert direct-address monologues, and the character of Frederick Treves (played here by Cooper's American Hustle co-star, Alessandro Nivola)--the young doctor who rescues Merrick from a side-show and attempts to bring normalcy to his life--often feels like he's more of the central figure than Merrick.

And then there is the question of how to present Merrick's grotesquery. Cooper does better than any previous actor I've seen in convincingly communicating the character's physical maladies without the aid of prosthetics. He twists his body to project Merrick's hunched back, his lame right arm, and his untarnished, almost beautiful left hand, which his doctor rightly states that any woman would desire to have. Cooper's vocal performance is mesmerizing: he makes Merrick's voice both whispered and almost unnaturally high, to convey his compromised lungs; bits of dialogue are punctuated by deep wheezes. There is true gentility in his speech, another mark by which the audience should be forced to recognize his humanity. Yet, I never truly found that I could only see Merrick. For this, I don't blame Cooper--there is not a trace of his movie-star persona in this performance. I fault the writing and the concept, which never fully seem to land.

The rest of the production--directed by Scott Ellis, who also staged this season's revival of You Can't Take It With You--is professional, but hardly moving. Nivola is excellent, though, as I said before, it feels odd that so much of the story is filtered through his experience, rather than Merrick's . Patricia Clarkson--returning to the New York stage after a long absence--is less successful as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who makes it her task to bring societal recognition to Elephant Man. A far cry from her electric film performances, Clarkson is oddly dispassionate, and her accent frequently wavers. The rest of the ensemble, which includes veteran stage actors like Henry Stram, Kathryn Meisle, and Anthony Heald, do fine work; Heald is particularly strong as both Merrick's former manager (read: exploiter) and a priest who recognizes Merrick's Christian soul. This production is already shattering box office records, and will continue to do so. I just wish Cooper could have spent his largesse on a better play.

[Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, with one intermission. Fourth row mezzanine, discounted ticket].


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful, in-depth review. I think one of the reasons that Pomerance's play seems coldly analytical at times is because it's loosely based on Treves's biased memoirs. The message also seems to be one that Merrick's loneliness was caused by society's attitudes towards him, but the reality is more complex. The real Merrick suffered multiple disabilities due to his condition, far more than just the way people reacted to him. But he was indeed gentle, loving and kind, and I can understand why Cooper has such a passionate admiration for him.
There's a new bio of Joseph Merrick on Amazon called "Measured by the Soul: The Life of Joseph Carey Merrick.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful, in-depth review. I think the play can be cold and analytical as seen through Treves's eyes. the idea that as Merrick becomes more 'normal' he becomes less merciful is too simplistic. Also, the real Merrick's problems far exceeded society's perception of him - he suffered multiple disabilities and was in constant pain from Proteus Syndrome.
Despite his suffering, though, Joseph Merrick was kind, compassionate and loving, and I can see why Cooper admires him so passionately. Thanks for emphasizing that in your review.