Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Theater Review: 'The Elephant Man'

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"The Elephant Man," in its second Broadway revival since premiering in 1979, is an intensely thoughtful work with great meaty roles, but it's showing dramaturgical cracks. There's still much to admire about Scott Ellis' tautly polished production...beginning with Bradley Cooper's exquisitely honest portrayal in the title role.

It's based on the true story of John Merrick, who was born in 1862 with unimaginable deformities. Believed to be half-human, half-elephant, he was displayed as a freak and cruelly abused.

Eventually, a compassionate doctor named Frederick Treves arranged for Merrick to live in a London hospital for the purposes of scientific study. Unexpectedly, Merrick turned out to possess a high intelligence and he was transformed from a pathetic outcast to the toast of society, charming the British upper crust with his innocent wit and probing intellect.

Bernard Pomerance's play explores the moral divide that both helped and hurt Merrick. It's a heady premise, but we see the hypocrisy of too much and too little morality in the way that Merrick came to be exploited by both sides. Though the play's ideas are compelling, they're conveyed rather didactically and the lack of action slows everything down.

Fortunately the ensemble is top shelf. Alessandro Nivola engagingly conveys Treve’s soft heart and stiff spine. As the actress Mrs. Kendall, Patricia Clarkson is splendidly regal and warm, though strangely, her British accent did a disappearing act.

Best of all, though, Bradley Cooper, forced to contort his body and render his face emotionless, managed to express a vast array of emotions through the tiniest of gestures. It's a towering performance delivered in the most subtle fashion and I was extremely moved by him.

"The Elephant Man" can be ponderous but there's nothing like a thrilling performance to lift a heavy show well off the ground.

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