As Peter Pan is traditionally portrayed by a gamine actress, and Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad by a chunky actor, theatrical tradition dictates that John Merrick, the grotesquely deformed title character of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, be embodied by an extremely handsome, seminude star eager to demonstrate his stage chops. (Among those who have played Merrick on Broadway since Philip Anglim created the role in 1979 are David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and Billy Crudup.) In the new revival, based on the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival production, Bradley Cooper more than qualifies: He is extremely handsome, he is seminude (at least part of the time), and not only demonstrates but proves those chops. His concept of Merrick’s physical attributes, meant to be suggestive rather than documentary, is smartly thought out and beautifully rendered: the involuted right hand, the third-position turnout, the strangled French horn of a voice, the watery diction like the slurp of a dentist’s bowl. Within the shell of these characteristics Cooper has also imagined a pearl, or at least an irritant, of a character: clever, sad, eager to be patronized and yet possessing a native skepticism that can only be expressed obliquely. Rarely has a vocabulary of so many monosyllables been made to sound so sarcastic and needling.
But as all this suggests, Merrick, whose first name was actually Joseph, is a limited character, theatrically no less than historically. In real life, his condition and appearance left him with only two choices — the workhouse or the freak show — until he was rescued by a socially prominent doctor who took an interest in his case. Under Frederick Treves’s protectorship (and thumb), Merrick spent the last four years of his life at the London Hospital, an object of charity and faddish fascination, visited by artists and toffs and even royalty, but also a kind of prisoner. Onstage, too, the role is more excuse than character. Merrick is the disturbing force in a comfortable field, the crux of an argument about Victorian values but not in a position to be affected much by the outcome of that argument. He isn’t even really the lead.
Though a play called The Medicine Man wouldn’t have quite the same cachet, the real drama here is the doctor’s. At least Treves’s problem is one he has the agency (if not the will) to address. That his problem is less personal than symbolic is, I’m afraid, symptomatic of the grandiosity of the play’s conception. (He announces himself as “a scientist in an age of science. In an English age, an Englishman.”) Treves is baldly presented to us as an example of the rational man who does not understand how his rationality is underlaid by immense privilege. And he’s not the only one. Pomerance neatly situates Merrick at the center of a Do-Gooders Gallery who see in him what they would like to see in themselves. There’s Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator, who fancies himself and his nation stouthearted, fair, and practical. There’s the Bishop How, a real figure whose name alone was a gimme, too easily painted here as an avatar of boobish, parasitical religiosity. And, most fascinatingly, there’s Mrs. Kendal, the great actress, carrying the banner for art (specifically, the theater) by rejecting the hypocrisies the others so unwittingly embrace. She also gets the best quips. When (in a total invention of Pomerance’s) Treves brings the actress to meet Merrick at the hospital in hopes of improving his socialization, she is almost Tourettic with bons mots:
TREVES: My aim’s to lead him to as normal a life as possible. … Most critical I feel, however, are women. I will explain. They have always shown the greatest fear and loathing of him. While he adores them of course.
MRS. KENDAL: Ah. He is intelligent.
TREVES: I am convinced they are the key to retrieving him from his exclusion. Though, I must warn you, women are not quite real to him — more creatures of his imagination.
MRS. KENDAL: Then he is already like other men, Mr. Treves.
TREVES: So I thought an actress could help. I mean, unlike most women, you won’t give in, you are trained to hide your true feelings and assume others.
MRS. KENDAL: You mean unlike most women I am famous for it, that is really all.
If The Elephant Man overshoots its target as dramatic literature — its indictment of society is far less interesting than the presenting situation might have been on its own — it is nevertheless a spectacular delivery system for bravura performances. Aside from Cooper this production boasts at least two. As Treves, Alessandro Nivola brings imaginative, intense intelligence and matinee idol agonizing to a role that, as written, is full of holes. As he did so thrillingly last season in The Winslow Boy, he offers a spirited lesson in how material that is not convincingly dramatized may yet be convincingly acted. Patricia Clarkson similarly pulls spectacular warmth and daring out of the spring-loaded hat of a role that is almost too evidently a star turn. Clarkson somehow works that deficiency into her successful, and hilarious, notion of the character. It is not, however, so much a tribute to her acting that she convinces us of her interest in Merrick. Here the trope of the beautiful actor, meant to suggest Merrick’s beautiful soul but also to force the audience to use its imagination, always backfires. As a result, even Mrs. Kendal, set up in the play’s cosmology as the only one who sees Merrick for who he really is, the only one who dares to part the curtain of received English propriety, seems a bit self-serving. Who would not want to spend an afternoon reading Hardy or weaving baskets with Bradley Cooper?
But it won’t do to keep pulling at these loose threads; the play is nothing but. (The subplot about a financial scandal is almost unintelligible.) A director working with this material must therefore take great care not to overstretch it. Scott Ellis, having a good year already with You Can’t Take It With You, makes the right trade-offs. If some of his cuts — notably a dream sequence that anatomizes Treves as he once anatomized Merrick — leave the larger implications of the play a bit obscure, that’s probably for the best. And if by casting such a glamorous trio in the leads he has minimized the daring of what their characters do, I’m not sure I’d want to see the version in which Merrick, or for that matter Mrs. Kendal, look the way they historically did. (You can rent the David Lynch movie for that.) This is a beautifully judged Broadway revival, from the sleek design and swift pace to the professionalism of the supporting cast — in particular, Henry Stram as Carr Gomm and Anthony Heald as the bishop. Of course, as the play is always at pains to point out, beauty is only skin deep. To which I’d add: If that.
The Elephant Man is at the Booth Theatre through February 15.