“The Elephant Man” returns to Broadway, and while the leading actor in this show gets better and better looking with each revival, the play itself gets creakier and creakier.
Bradley Cooper plays John Merrick, London’s famous Elephant Man, in the new revival of Bernard Pomerance’s play that opened Sunday at the Booth Theatre. Cooper proved he could act on stage in “Three Days of Rain,” the 2006 revival that proved Julia Roberts could not.
“The Elephant Man” is quite a different acting assignment for Cooper. When we first see him on stage, he’s three-quarters naked, wearing what look like very weathered khaki shorts. He stands erect, expressionless. Then Cooper begins to curl his lower lip, he turns his right hand into a gnarled stump, he twists his torso, sticks out his butt, and makes effective gurgling noises between every five or six clumps of words. Is this great acting?
Better question: Is the Elephant Man an actor-proof role? Philip Anglim, Broadway’s original lead in the play, received a Tony nomination, and was practically never heard from again. David Bowie was a replacement and also received raves, and never appeared on Broadway again. Cooper, no doubt, will go on to more interesting stage assignments.
He does bring something special to the role of John Merrick, arguably one of the most unattractive men who ever lived. Cooper isn’t just good-looking in the flesh; he’s drop-dead gorgeous. The actors on stage at the Booth Theatre keep looking at him in amazed horror, while the audience at the Booth keeps looking at him with amazed lust and/or envy. Since Pomerance’s characters tell us that Merrick has no privacy because he’s been turned into a public spectacle, the play takes on new meaning with Cooper in the role. We learn that this is what it’s like to be a movie star in ways E! and TMZ never taught us. Cooper more than fulfills this new dimension of the play.
Only in a couple of crucial moments does he push the star thing. His crying at the end of act one is unnecessary, and for his big death scene he somehow finds the strength to let go of Merrick’s oversized head and raise his hand to the light for a good minute. Stars don’t need to grasp for the spotlight.
Cooper can’t be blamed, however, for playing Merrick the way Pomerance wrote him: The guy is a saintly bore. One minute he’s gurgling in a tent, and the next scene he’s the perfect English gentleman.
David Lynch‘s screenplay (co-written using different source material) for his 1980 film is far superior at creating the bridge between the sideshow freak and the high-society freak that London came to adore. That screenplay also dispenses with the witty bon mots that keep dropping from Merrick’s mouth in the play, like he’s in competition with Oscar Wilde for the Best Dandy Award of fin de siècle London.
Director Scott Ellis is not successful at making the play’s elliptical second act anything but a string of unrelated high points. Merrick’s doctor (Alessandro Nivola) experiences financial difficulties that appear out of nowhere and are never mentioned again. Merrick’s actress patron (Patricia Clarkson) exposes her breasts to Merrick, and so feels compelled to walk out of his life immediately. The doctor suddenly undergoes a religious crisis, which is never resolved because Merrick ends his life and so ends the play.
Nivola offers the same arrogant, self-satisfied English stiff he did in last season’s “The Winslow Boy” revival, but with less variety here.
Clarkson plays the actress to the hilt and then some. But never dull, her too-few moments on stage remain the most memorable.