Stellar Performances Make “The Elephant Man” Worth Seeing

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Bradley Cooper, Allesandra Nivola.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Bradley Cooper, Allesandra Nivola. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Bradley Cooper, the film star and Oscar nominee, may be the box office draw for The Elephant Man now at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, but he is not the only attraction in this revival.

Cooper, who apparently has been interested in Joseph Merrick, the subject of  the play, since adolescence has been surrounded by an outstanding ensemble.

Bradley Cooper. Photo by Joan Marcus
Bradley Cooper. Photo by Joan Marcus

Merrick, an Englishman was born in 1862.  At an early age he began to develop grotesque growths and deformities which even today,  have not definitive diagnosis. The most common theory today is that he suffered from           a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. One is genetic and one congenital.  Due to his outlandish appearance, he was assumed to be mental limited as well.  He ended up in what was a called a “freak show” as a star exhibit until he was befriended by Dr. Frederick Treves who gave him a home at London Hospital. It was there that Treves discovered that Merrick had a fine intelligence.

In his remaining years, (he died in 1890), Merrick enjoyed the company of a variety of upper class people and even met and talked with Princess (later Queen) Alexandra.

The revival of the play by Bernard Pomerance is based mainly on the writings of Dr. Treves.  It does not claim to be a totally accurate portrayal of Merrick’s life. While the famous actress Madge Kendal took an interest in Merrick and raised funds on his behalf, she never met him in person.

But enough about Merrick, let’s talk about this production.

Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola. Photo by Joan Marcus
Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola. Photo by Joan Marcus

First of all,  Cooper’s portrayal of Merrick does not depend on make-up to indicate the extent of the deformities.  He does it — as those who have performed the stage role before him, through us of his body — the contortion of him limbs and mouth, the placement of shoulder and hip.  It is a physically demanding part.

What is also challenging is to represent Merrick’s speech which was difficult to understand due to his deformities while still making it understandable to an audience.

Cooper proves his acting chops with this role — this is not just a “movie star” but a fine stage actor as well.  We can only hope that his career will include frequent stage appearances.

Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola play the other two major characters– Mrs. Kendal and Dr. Frederick Treves.  Clarkson is one of those fine actresses who should be better known to the public than she is;  among her peers she is highly respected and her performance here demonstrates why.  She is an actress who is playing an actress — a woman who can be “on stage” in any setting.  You see when she first meets Merrick suddenly assume a role and carry it off beautifully.

Nivola is equal to the other two as the young, caring doctor who slowly discovers the man beneath the deformities and becomes both fiercely protective and admiring of Merrick. The other cast members — who are all excellent — play a variety of roles. This is truly a cast composed of seasoned veterans — they may not be household names — but they are pros — from Anthony Heald and Kathryn Meisle to Scott Lowell, Henry Stram and the others.

The set by Tiomthy R. Mackabee who also did the production design, focuses on suggesting rather than excessive

detail and the period costumes by Clint Ramos are excellent.  In addition credit must be give to Mackabee for the use of the projections of the “real” Merrick and the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg and music and sound design by John Gromada.

Scott Ellis is the fine director who led this company; he has mined the emotion of the piece without letting it slip in sentimentality or pathos.

This production of The Elephant Man took two almost two years to reach Broadway from its production at Williamstown Theater Festival. In that time, I am sure the performances of Cooper, Clarkson and Nivola have deepened.

The Elephant Man  at the Booth Theater 222 West 44th St., is a limited run through Feb. 21. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

Bradley Cooper, Alessandra Nivola, Patricia Clarkson. Photo by Joan Marcus
Bradley Cooper, Alessandra Nivola, Patricia Clarkson. Photo by Joan Marcus

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