Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 7, 2014
The Williamstown Theatre Festival Production ofThe Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Scott Ellis. Scenic and projection design by Timothy R. Mackabee. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Alessandro Nivola, with Anthony Heald, Scott Lowell, Kathryn Meisle, Henry Stram, Chris Bannow, Peter Bradbury, Lucas Calhoun, Eric Clem, Amanda Lea Mason, Marguerite Stimpson, Emma Thorne.
It’s that figure, one presumes, that energized director Scott Ellis in considering his clinical spin on Pomerance’s biographical drama. Bradley Cooper, a legitimate Hollywood heavyweight with credits ranging from the Hangover trilogy to Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (the last two of which earned him Academy Award nominations) and a one-time “Sexiest Man Alive” for People magazine, is the type of person other people look at; the same was true of the severely deformed John Merrick, who took Victorian London by storm more than a century ago. So combining the two within a sterile, hospital-oriented framework, would be an ideal way to highlight how we stare at, and objectify, others, often for very different reasons.
Ellis’s approach works now, as one supposes it did when it first appeared at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (also with Cooper) in 2012. Timothy R. Mackabee’s set and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, replete with dusty curtains and unforgiving illumination, fuse the play’s natural Brechtian undertones with a strong medical–freak show vibe, making the story at once timely and timeless, as well as theatrical and personal. (Clint Ramos designed the fine costumes.) And with swift pacing and an estimable cast that also includes Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson, the production hits all the marks, and does so accurately and smartly.
Even so, there’s a shortage of excitement here. This is at least partly attributable to Pomerance’s writing, which is well meaning but cool and more than a little preachy as it charts John’s rise from back-alley curiosity to patient to toast of London to a pitiful figure who’s killed by the very normality he’s always coveted. John has barely begun to embrace his possibilities before he’s already become a mirror for the aspirations of the society power players around him and is about ready to crash back down for the final time. And though there’s much to like in how John navigates this, with the help of his doctor-protector-friend Frederick Treves (Nivola) and Mrs. Kendal (Clarkson), the actress Frederick brings in to introduce John, however fleetingly, to womanhood, there’s little plot to hang on to and a lot of lecturing about our innate gifts for unintentionally dehumanizing others.
But Cooper’s guy-next-door amiability, which serves him so well in many of his movies, cannot completely give way to the loftier soul Pomerance has crafted. Though Cooper handles the introductory scenes adeptly, when John is still barely a step above an animal (as viewed by so many of those around him, at any rate), the evolution to a philosophical icon and more openly feeling human being is muddier. Cooper stays at roughly the same level throughout, not fully growing into the more elevated and influential spirit John eventually becomes, a feat Billy Crudup made masterful in the last Broadway revival, in 2002. And without that, there’s not much to keep the second act from feeling flat, if not outright extraneous.
You do, after all, need something more to look at in this version of the world. Nivola’s entire performance, excellent if low-key, echoes with a breathy sense of fear that eyes — whether those of his superiors, of God, or of other Londoners — are bearing down on and judging him, and reinforces the notion that, in many ways, he’s as on display as John is. This provides a much-needed additional dimension, and lends weight to the relationship that forms them, and eventually proves critical. Though Clarkson finds an oddly comforting innocence in Mrs. Kendall that pays off during the woman’s more intimate engagements with Merrick, she never lets you forget the woman is an actress of ability, and the type who may never be fully trusted.
Not that anyone else can be, either — it’s no small conceit on Pomerance’s part that everyone is, in one way or another, playing a role. Ellis brings that out, too, in the supporting performances, particularly from Henry Stram as Frederick’s administrator superior (who makes a grand show of his tolerance toward Merrick), Anthony Heald as, among others, the bishop who believes he has the answers to soothe Frederick’s ills, and Kathryn Meisle as Frederick’s weak-stomached hire and the too-fawning Princess Alexandra. It’s not hard to see — especially given that we’re allowed little other choice — how these people are, in many ways, more monstrous than John.
Had Cooper made him even more of a saint, and had Ellis more readily energized the show surrounding him, the impact this time around might have been more emotional and a bit less intellectual than it is. But there’s still plenty to compel, and plenty to like, in this Elephant Man. It can be overstated and cliché, yes, but it nonetheless provides a sufficiently jolting reminder that there are always more appropriate and more loving ways to treat both others and ourselves.