I just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York, during which I saw 5 Broadway shows. I will be reviewing them all here on the blog, beginning with the first one I saw: The Elephant Man!
When Bradley Cooper first takes the stage in the current Broadway revival of The Elephant Man, he looks like the Sexiest Man Alive that we know so well. He takes his mark center stage, next to a projection of actual images of Joseph Merrick (renamed John Merrick in the play), the real man on whose life the play is based. As the doctor character explains each of Merrick’s deformities, Cooper contorts his body and face accordingly, without the aid of any makeup or prosthetics, until he barely resembles the striking leading man who took the stage only moments before. Cooper spends the rest of the nearly two-hour play in an incredibly uncomfortable-looking posture, hunched over and supporting himself with a cane with his face twisted nearly beyond recognition. It is a stunningly physical performance that demands nothing less than full commitment to the role and must be truly exhausting to perform 8 times a week. Cooper has spoken about how he has always been fascinated by Merrick’s story and performed this play as his grad school thesis, and his connection to the role is evident in his astonishingly transformative performance.
For those who are unfamiliar, The Elephant Man takes place in the Victorian era. Merrick has spent basically his entire life in a freak show until he is rescued by ambitious surgeon Frederick Treves (played here by Alessandro Nivora), who aims to not only study Merrick’s mysterious condition but also to give him a civilized, comfortable life the likes of which he has never known. In an effort to introduce Merrick to as much normalcy as possible, Treves invites his friend, actress Madge Kendal, to visit Merrick. Although she, like many others before her, is initially very taken aback by Merrick’s grotesque appearance, she is quickly enchanted by his intelligent thoughts and opinions on literature and love. She becomes the first woman to ever shake Merrick’s hand, which causes him to be overwhelmed with emotion, and the two develop a friendship.
Ms. Kendal is played in this production by Patricia Clarkson, who is absolutely luminous. The show is at its best in the scenes featuring Clarkson and Cooper – the two of them simply lit up the theater whenever they were onstage together, and it was truly mesmerizing to watch. For me, the show faltered a bit in the scenes that featured neither of them, perhaps because their relationship is the heart of the show and the most compelling aspect of the story. While Nivola’s performance as the doctor was perfectly solid, I was just not as invested in his storyline. Act one, which ends with the breathtaking scene where Cooper and Clarkson meet for the first time, simply flew by. In a way it also built up to something that was never quite paid off, which I think is why act two felt like a bit of a disappointment. But it is important to remember that Merrick’s story is a tragedy. There was never going to be a happy ending here, so what can we honestly expect but a letdown? The show lost momentum in act two, as the story crept closer and closer to Merrick’s inevitable premature demise. Although as an audience member I will admit the show lost me a little bit, perhaps it is appropriate that the vibrancy of the production faltered as Merrick himself did.
The Elephant Man is a classic tragedy that is affecting, poignant, and at times hard to watch. The highlight of this production is absolutely the performances of Cooper and Clarkson. While Cooper has been gaining respect as a film actor over the past few years as he has moved towards more serious roles, his performance here proves even further that he should not be overlooked as an accomplished actor of his generation.
The limited engagement of The Elephant Man plays at New York’s Booth Theatre through February 22nd, and it was announced this week that this company will then take the show to London for a 12 week run. For more information and tickets visit http://elephantmanbroadway.com/.