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The Elephant Man

Review by Kathleen Campion
8 December 2014

This revival of the 1979 Broadway hit relies on the grim retelling of an oft-told tale, that of Joseph Carey Merrick, who as a young man, developed such gross deformities he was displayed as a sideshow curiosity in England of the 1880s. He was rescued from this ghastly existence by Frederick Treves, a young doctor at the London Hospital who wished to study him. Merrick stayed at the hospital till his death. There was no medical fix. Treves endeavoured to treat his condition by helping Merrick live as normally as possible.

Much of the story is true, much apocryphal. Details aside, Bernard Pomerance's script demonstrates the capacity for human dignity in the face of the most appalling odds, and focuses on Merrick's years of redemption and self awareness. At the same time, seen through Merrick's eyes, it is a wonderful send up of British pretensions, masculine posturing, and the medical community's grandiosity.

Skipping by the decision to cast a beautiful man as the monstrously defined elephant man, Bradley Cooper (Merrick) does his best to make us forget his beauty (and his sitcom and movie star props) and get to his character; we get there fast.

In a powerful early scene, Treves, center stage, addresses his medical colleagues at The London. Referring to actual, life-sized photographs of the real Merrick, he narrates, with a physician's detachment, his appalling afflictions. Stage right, Cooper, dressed only in short pants, metamorphoses from the perfect man, all muscle and symmetry, to the freak show version of Merrick, curling his fingers, distending his back, pitching his now outsized heavy head back and to the side. It's a remarkable exercise in itself. That Cooper maintains that distortion throughout the performance is stunning.

As you come to know Merrick-he is dressed like you or me-as he makes us laugh with his insights, he gradually becomes less grotesque. Another artful transition owing to the actor's talent and the director's (Scott Ellis) restraint.

The second act is full of message: the physician's plight-he sees damage in the world but cannot heal attitude. Merrrick is again the metaphor-the more he is normalized the closer he comes to death. Anthony Heald's Bishop How is the pompous and ineffectual Church. Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) gives Merrick her humanity, and is banished.

Clarkson's star turn alone is worth the trip to the Booth. She is Mrs. Kendal, a well known actress. Treves introduces her to Merrick hoping that, as an actress, she can mask her reaction to his deformities and give him the company of a beautiful woman. Mrs. Kendal is worldly and wonderful and Clarkson delivers both her bons mots, and her more tender entreaties, with that disarming gift-she is somehow able to make us feel that whatever she is saying...she's just thought of it.

The brutality of the early scenes gives way to the calm of the hospital. We are captive, as is Merrick, in a small sanctuary space. Staging is spectacular in it's simplicity. Nurses in 1880s garb march across the stage closing and opening curtains offering up surprising impact and variety.

It is a reality today that producers won't open a show of size without a television and/or movie star to headline. In Cooper and Clarkson they have both and their film and television following fill the theater on this Saturday matinee. The line outside the stage door at the end of the performance, iPhones poised, some surprisingly expert elbowing for position, was telling.

That said, each of these actors very much belongs on a Broadway stage.

(Kathleen Campion)

"It is Mr. Cooper whom most ticket buyers have come to see...what he brings to this production is the weight of years of being stared at as an adult, and he is the first star of his stature to take on the part in our post-Warhol world of celebrity obsession."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"There's nothing subtle about the conceit, but it still works four decades later...the production boasts ample humor, largely due to Cooper's delivery."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"The best scenes in Scott Ellis' polished production are between Merrick and Patricia Clarkson's Mrs. Kendal, an actress with enough composure to refrain from flinching at his sight. Indeed, she's genuinely moved by him."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"For a play about social perceptions of physical ugliness, this Williamstown Theater Festival production of Bernard Pomerance's Tony Award-winning 1979 drama "The Elephant Man" is breathtakingly beautiful."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

"Cooper's tremendously moving performance, along with the sensitive work of co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola, transforms this rather starchy play from patronizing edification into a haunting emotional experience."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Variety - Hollywood Reporter

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