By Brian Scott Lipton
Star casting doesn’t always equal stunt casting, no matter what the naysayers proclaim. Bradley Cooper happily proves the point with his thoroughly committed performance in the title role of Bernard Pomerance’s ever-sturdy drama “The Elephant Man,” now getting its third Broadway production at the Booth Theatre under Scott Ellis’ sensitive and solid direction.
The hunky film star – who has especially beefed up for this role as we all see early on — more than meets the grueling physical demands of playing the deformed Joseph “John” Merrick, contorting his body into highly uncomfortable positions, walking on his tiptoes, and slurring his words. Equally important, he connects emotionally to Merrick, who spent most of his short life in freak shows in Victorian England before being rescued by the well-meaning Dr. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), and living out his final years in the “luxury” of a London hospital. (The show’s minimal set, which serves as many locations, is designed by Timothy A. Mackabee.)
Under Treves’ care and guidance, Merrick is finally allowed to express every facet of his humanity, including his surprisingly complex brain and innate charm, briefly becoming the toast of London society. Pomerance makes Merrick perhaps a tad too noble for the play’s own good, but Cooper manages to find whatever humility there is in the character.
As good as Cooper is, he’s matched acting-wise by Nivola, who brilliantly delineates the seemingly satisfied Treves’ descent into moral uncertainty and personal unhappiness. Nowhere is the difficulty of Treves’ journey clearer than after he accidentally witnesses a sensual encounter between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal (the sublime Patricia Clarkson, resplendent in Clint Ramos’ gorgeous costumes), the free-thinking actress he has encouraged to befriend his patient. In many ways, Treves is really the show’s central character, and Nivola effortlessly holds his own whenever he’s center stage.
Indeed, Ellis, once again. displays his acumen for casting and guiding actors (also on view now in Broadway’s “You Can’t Take It With You”) not just with his leading players. An unrecognizable Anthony Heald is deliciously odious as Merrick’s freak-show boss Ross and properly pious as Bishop How; Henry Stram perfectly embodies the practical hospital head Carr Gomm; and the always welcome Kathryn Meisle makes strong impressions in the small roles of a kind nurse and the conceited Princess Alexandra. (Scott Lowell, Peter Bradbury, Eric Clem, Chris Bannow, Amanda Lee Mason, and Marguerite Stimpson complete the well-chosen, versatile ensemble.)
Merrick’s story has been told many times, including in Treves’ own memoirs and David Lynch’s film version of this play. Forutnately, it’s worth hearing again, especially in this utterly moving and gloriously performed telling.
*Click Photos to Enlarge – by Joan Marcus