Bernard Pomerance’s play from 1977 has been revived on Broadway for a fourteen week run, starring Bradley Cooper in the title role, which is the only big news connected with the production.
Cooper’s film career has won him Oscar nominations for “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” and his fan club was greatly expanded by his appearances in “The Hangover” trilogy and a scrapbook full of other films and TV appearances. A trained stage actor (The Actors Studio MFA Program), he appeared opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain on Broadway and he’s taken time to act onstage at Williamstown in The Understudy and as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. In his school days he’d played Merrick once before; clearly he is attracted to the role and he’s perfectly splendid in this production.
As with all his fellow actors known primarily for their film work, the show is selling out nightly and will undoubtedly do so for its entire run, following in the steps of Hugh Jackman’s The River, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig’s A Steady Rain, Julia Roberts’ Three Days of Rain, Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall’s (both stars of long running TV series) Hedwig and the Angry Inch and so many others. Rarely seen on stage these large and small screen actors give airings to revivals and occasional new works that take their fancy, opt for a specific limited run, work with producers who are expert at promotion, and generally arrive at their first nights risk-free, with boffo business guaranteed regardless of what’s going on onstage. They bring excitement to the streets of Broadway; their fans stand in rain or snow waiting for them at their stage doors, and in turn are rewarded with, on average, revealingly good work by stars who enjoy stretching and in many cases, “returning to their roots”, for many of them were indeed trained in the ways of live theatre.
The Elephant Man is a prime example of this recently established genre. It’s not a particularly distinguished piece of writing, though it does tell a little known story about John Merrick who was born with a greatly disfigured body. Abandoned by his parents, raised in the Leicester Work House, exploited by an opportunistic promoter who displayed him publicly for a fee (very much as in the case of the conjoined twins of Side Show).
Mr. Pomerance’s play emerges as more of a documentary than an important or particularly insightful play that reveals little more than the facts. Dr. Frederick Treves did hear of Merrick’s plight, and rescued him by arranging financing for his care in a medical facility where he cleaned him up,and gave him material that allowed him to slowly construct a model of St. Phillip’s church.
In this production, however, we see the model when it looks complete, and have no sense of the pains or the talent put into its creation. Treves also introduces him to a charming stage actress, (Mrs. Kendal) who was so moved by him, by his intelligence and wit, that she arranged to make him the darling of the Smart Set in which she moved. She hosts gatherings of high society folk and even royalty, all of whom brighten Merrick’s barren life.
As played by the incandescent Patricia Clarkson, her scenes opposite Bradley Cooper are vivid, impressive, moving. But for the rest, I found Scott Ellis’ direction uninspired, allowing a slow pace to prevail, which is odd, as he did a masterful job on this season’s hit revival of You Can’t Take It With You. The physical production on Elephant Man is minimal, making scant use of a series of curtains pulled again and again to indicate a change of scene from the London streets to the Dr.’s office to Merrick’s bedroom between the fall of 1884 and the spring of 1890. Loud blasts of music as well announced each new scene.
Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dr. Treves, is attractive but has little energy and acts more as narrator (at times he does lecture us) than as participant. Ms. Clarkson who is best known to us for her many splendid contemporary characterizations on “Six Feet Under” and “Parks and Recreation”, has returned to the stage often, on and off Broadway and at the Kennedy Center. I’d not seen her play anything with as much high style as she brings to this role, and her work is excellent.
Bradley Cooper manages, in one of the more effective scenes early in the play, to transform himself from a statuesque male figure into the grotesque John Merrick that we actually see in some of the photo slides in Dr. Treve’s office.
In the end, I felt I’d learned something about the very rare affliction with which the play deals, but neither the writer nor the director has illuminated the bare bones of the story so that it touches the heart. The final moments are moving enough, but only because Bradley Cooper clearly connects to John Merrick and he manages to make his last moments work as a release for himself and for us. But he does so without the help of the playwright, for there are no words needed or supplied.
The Elephant Man is onstage thru February 15, 2015 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.