Monday, December 8, 2014
The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre
The life of Joseph Merrick attracted a lot of attention in the late 1970's, first with the publication of Ashley Montagu's book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity and the renewed interest in Dr. Frederick Treves' memoir The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. This led to the 1979 Tony winning play The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance receiving a top notch revival production at the Booth Theatre. While this is an excellent production featuring compelling performances by the small cast and steady, thoughtful direction by Scott Ellis, audiences who pay attention to the text may leave the theatre questioning the circumstances of Joseph Merrick's life, particularly after his decision to live and be studied medically by Dr. Treves at the London Hospital for the last four years of his life.
Joseph Merrick? Does the reviewer not mean John Merrick as he is referred to in Pomerance's play? No. The actual man was named Joseph Merrick and following the popularity of both the play and the David Lynch film another biography by Michael Howell and Peter Ford The True History of the Elephant Man was published which proved among other things that the young man's name was Joseph and that a lot of what Dr. Treves published about Mr. Merrick's early years was false. Yet, despite these errors being given voice in the play, Mr. Pomerance's play is filled with a respect for humanity especially beneath the surface of one hideously deformed by a medical condition unable to be treated by 19th century medicine. Come for the freak show, or more likely to see Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper in the title role. Leave the theater questioning whether Mr. Merrick simply traded up to a more comfortable exhibit hall.
The play begins with Dr. Treves meeting his new employer Carr Gromm at the London Hospital. Learning of a freak show curiousity near the hospital he pays his admission and sees John Merrick for the first time. Insisting on examining Mr. Merrick Dr. Treves takes him back to the hospital where he gives a lecture on his deformities. During the lecture photographs of the actual Merrick are shown while the very beautiful Mr. Cooper contorts his body to approximate Merrick's disability.
According to the play, Joseph Merrick was born and developed hideous skin growths that severely deformed most of his body. Abandoned by his mother to a workhouse he grew up there until he reached maturity. The only source of income possible was to join a side show as a curiosity. Mr. Merrick is shown being beaten by his so-called owner and manager Ross and eventually abandoned while in Belgium. Returning to London Mr. Merrick is admitted to London Hospital where Dr. Treves gets several life lessons about the nature of humanity and man's relationship to God by caring for Mr. Merrick. It is Merrick's introduction to the famous actress Mrs. Kendall that broadens his social interactions while turning the London Hospital into a popular site for the aristocratic patrons the hospital desperately needs for funds. Over the course of his stay at the hospital one can only wonder did Dr. Treves benefit more from his paternalistic care of the man or did Merrick deepen Dr. Treves humanity.
The primary players in this revival give emotional performances. Alessandro Nivola is a reticent Dr. Treves whose relationship with Merrick slowly unleashes buried emotions. Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendall has a regal bearing. She is "acting" when she is first asked to visit Merrick using her performer's mask to hide her natural revulsion. The two characters are deeply affected by how Merrick affects them deeply and it shows in their heartfelt performances.
Bradley Cooper shows by his role choices how good an actor he is, not for nothing has he rightly earned two Academy Award nominations. Mr. Cooper has stated in numerous interviews that it was the 1980 David Lynch film of The Elephant Man (not related to the play) that made him want to become an actor. Merrick is a challenging and showy role requiring great physical and vocal stamina. Look beyond the theatrics and Mr. Cooper is giving one of the most compelling performances of the fall Broadway season. One hopes that he is not lost at Tony nomination time by the distant memories of the Tony committee after the closing of the limited run of this production.
The play is colored by a Victorian empire notion that those with money and means know best how to care for the poor and afflicted. Merrick's life story as portrayed feels at times like he has traded a street exhibition for a more gilded one. The audience should be uncomfortable by the all-knowing Victorian sensibilities of Dr. Treves towards his patient (and the hospital's cash cow). This same audience should also walk away from Mr. Cooper's performance in the title role delighted to have made Mr. Merrick's acquaintance.
The Elephant Man is being produced at The Booth Theatre on Broadway in a limited run through February 15, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit elephantmanbroadway.com.