The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Sean Mathias. Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Sound design by David Shapiro for ADI Group. Original music by Philip Glass. Cast: Billy Crudup, Kate Burton, Rupert Graves, Christopher Duva, James Riordan, Jenna Stern, Edmond Genest, Jack Gilpin, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Nick Toren, Joe Vincent, Lynn Wright.
A vital early scene in The Elephant Man finds a large group of people watching a presentation of the biological deformities of a curiosity known solely as the "Elephant Man." The presentation is cold, clinical and methodical, and devoid of emotion. Much the same can be said of the revival of Bernard Pomerance's play now at the Royale Theatre. While slickly executed, the production is as sterile and institutional as a hospital operating room.
The reasons for this, however, cannot be attributed to the patient under observation; you simply could not ask for a better one. Billy Crudup plays the title role, named John Merrick in the play, and gives a brilliant performance. Based on an actual person, the Elephant Man suffers from severe deformities that have forced him to earn his living in freak shows. Nothing about Merrick - his face, his walk, even his arm movements - can be considered typical, and Crudup captures all of it, without a prosthesis or extra makeup, in the grand tradition of this role.
When Crudup walks, it's with an anguished shoulder roll and stiff legs, the effect being one of clockwork precision, as effortless to him, apparently, as anyone not possessing such an affliction may walk. His face is likewise contorted, his voice possessing a thin, constricted English accent, that sounds as encumbered as he looks. We're told early on that Merrick's face is incapable of registering emotion, but from Crudup's performance, that's hardly lacking.
When Merrick is first put on display, in the hospital scene described above, Crudup appears physically perfect, unburdened by the strange bone disease with which Merrick has been inflicted. Yet, during the simple, brief act of stepping down from the platform on which he's been placed, Crudup undergoes a gradual, yet startling transformation from which he'll hardly emerge from the rest of the play.
Kate Burton also turns in a fine, detailed performance as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who brings humanity and femininity to Merrick's life. She's mannered, but fiery, and seems exactly the type of woman who would inspire the passions in him; her face and emotions are hidden behind masks as well, just of a different kind. Burton brings this across beautifully.
Director Sean Mathias, along with set and costume designer Santo Loquasto and light designer James F. Ingalls, have created a disjointed physical production that, like Merrick, seems to exist somewhere between academia and horror; Loquasto's sets are awash in sepia tones, playing with platforms and mirrors much as Ingalls does with shadows. (There are times when it appears that Ingalls and Crudup were working together in creating Merrick, the effects of the lighting on his skin are so indistinguishable from the skin itself.)
The production's one magnificent miscalculation is Rupert Graves. His role of Frederick Treves, the doctor who takes an interest in Merrick, is a major one, approximately equal in size and importance to Crudup's. But he is so overshadowed by Crudup from the beginning, that a vital element of the show is lost. It's difficult to have respect for Treves, difficult to take him seriously most of the time; Graves lacks the stature to make Treves work. The dramatic scene near the end of the show that turns the tables on Merrick and Treves falls flat because Treves has never found the character that Crudup becomes.
If The Elephant Man too often seems like a one-man show, it is not entirely Crudup's fault, he's simply doing his best (which is very, very good) with what he's been given, and it's hard to not wish more trust had been placed in that. Mathias, Loquasto, Ingalls, Burton, Graves, and the rest of The Elephant Man suffer from the same inescapable problem: Crudup's masterly performance overwhelms them all.
Everything else is window dressing; unnecessary and ugly. The show is already very detached and remote, as if it is truly under the audience's examination rather than emotional judgment. But it is tremendously difficult--even for Burton and Crudup--to find the emotional lives in their characters because the physical production is given such lavish attention; the production doesn't allow room for much else.
At least it allows space for the script. Pomerance's script remains strong, even in the more compact 100-minute form of the current revival. Its blend of dialogue strong, its points made clearly and imaginatively - the comparisons between Merrick and Kendal and the relationship of his deformity to his societal rise, in particular - with a fair amount of humor and pathos. It's never overdone.
The production itself is, even to the point of featuring highly intrusive (and unnecessary) music from composer Philip Glass. So much has been done to make this production a huge, enormous play that the creative team lost sight of what was there right under their noses. Crudup and Burton would make sure this was compelling theatre with no sets, costumes, lights, or tuneless modern music. What could this Elephant Man have been if Mathias had let them?